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.

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Chapter 7 – Overwhelmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He frowned. “Bears are dangerous.”

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

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

“You used magic on the mules?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you miss your parents?”

“Yes,” he said. “Terribly.”

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes turned to blazing coals.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Duncan came back, he could heal Charlie.

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

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

“Please. Just try.”

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

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

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

He did love Charlie, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

Gentle arms embraced me as I fought back tears.

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

Chapter 6 – Recriminations

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

~ Lewis Carroll ~

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

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

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

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

“How is Danica?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until he came and saved me.

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

“You found a witness.”

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

“What did he say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5 – Loyalty and Devotion

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

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

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

“Water under the bridge,” Charlie murmured.

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

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

Darryn killed Orion?” I asked, incredulous.

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

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

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

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

“I’d better tell Liam,” Uncle said.

“There’s no need, brother.”

I turned to see my father standing in the doorway.

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

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

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

“What are you saying?” Arrie whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a bit far-fetched.”

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

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

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

“And who might that be?”

“Niall Ashcroft.”

*  *  *

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

“I think I’m sick, Ang,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s… difficult to picture.”

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

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

Suds up to his elbows, Adalwulf chuckled softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 – Grave News

 

You may not control all the events that happen to you,
but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
~ Maya Angelou ~

The door slammed open, jerking me from sleep. I was on my feet, dagger in hand even before my eyes were fully open. Steeling myself for a fight, I was ready to defend him with magic if necessary. Bright blue elemental spirit zigzagged across the blade as Uncle Padraig and Arrie Stoddard tromped inside, with Danica Harris supported between them.

My relief at seeing the earth healer was rapidly replaced with dismay when I saw the condition she was in: pale and barely able to stand on her own.

“Put that blade away and help us take her upstairs!” my uncle snapped.

A quick glance at Charlie revealed that he was still sleeping in spite of the commotion. I sheathed the dagger and went to help them. I started giving her an infusion of spirit to give her the energy she obviously needed, but Uncle slapped my hand away.

“She’s had enough of that,” he said. “Probably more than is safe.”  I took Arrie’s place, helping him half-carry Danica upstairs. Arrie ran up ahead of us and was turning down the bedcovers when we entered the bedroom.

“Where have you been?” I demanded. “Why did you leave him?”

“There was an emergency,” Uncle replied through gritted teeth.

“And taking care of him wasn’t?!”

“I had to go!” Danica cried softly. “He was fine when we left him, I swear! He was sleeping.”

We maneuvered her to the side of her bed and her legs gave out. Padraig supported her while I took off her coat and boots.

“It’s all right,” he said. “You were needed there more.”

Danica collapsed onto the bed with a moan. Her eyes were shut before he and Arrie drew the blankets up around her shoulders. I opened my mouth to demand an explanation, but Uncle put a stern finger to his lips and then pointed to the door. Irate, I stomped halfway back down before remembering that Charlie was sleeping and softened my steps.

As soon as we were all in the infirmary again, I whirled around and faced him. “Just what was so important that you had to leave an injured and defenseless man alone in the middle of the night?” I hissed, pointing at his ravaged back.

Uncle tossed a fresh log into the fireplace and set it ablaze with his green fire.

“Niall was hurt last night,” Arrie said.

“Niall Ashcroft.” I sat back, staring at her in disbelief.

“Yes.”

“You abandoned my chosen to take care of Nualla’s son?” I wanted to shout at him but controlled the impulse.

“It wasn’t like that, Angelina,” he said sternly. The temperature in the room rose a few degrees.

“I don’t care!” I snapped at him. “Anybody could have healed Niall! Danica is the only healer who will even touch my chosen! He needs her!”

“She can’t right now,” Padraig said. “But I’m sure she will just as soon as she is able.”

“And just when will that be?”

Arrie and Padraig exchanged a despairing look.

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

“She is a druid,” I hissed, unwilling to give up even though I’d seen the state Danica was in. “The well of druid magic never runs dry!”

“No, it doesn’t,” Uncle said. “But the human body has its limits. She’s been channeling healing magic constantly since we left the other night. She needs to rest before performing another healing of such great magnitude.”

“There are other healers in this grove!” I snapped. “Go get one! Make them come!”

“Unfortunately, niece,” he said tiredly. “There are none available.”

“How is that possible? Did bandits attack? Did a plague spring up? Was there a rain of fire-stones from the sky?” My voice rose with every question, until it was loud enough to cause Charlie to stir. I drew in a deep breath to calm myself.

They exchanged another distressed look. Uncle sighed and dropped onto a stool. It was only then that I noticed the sunken appearance of his eyes and the bags beneath them. His face was drawn and his shoulders slumped with fatigue. As for Arrie, her face was pinched with worry, her red hair was a tangled mess, her clothing was rumpled and – was that blood on her shirt? What terrible events had transpired in the night while I’d been imprisoned?

“What happened?” I asked.

Padraig took a deep breath, as though steeling himself to tell me the news. “Orion got his hands on a sword and went after several of the grove’s healers. He murdered eleven earth druids while they were sleeping in their beds, and eight more had gone to join their ancestors by sundown yesterday.”

Horrified, I sank down onto a stool beside Charlie’s cot. Who in the grove had been foolish enough to leave a weapon where Dianthe’s deranged son could access it? Orion was dangerous, due entirely to a madness whose roots lay in his desire for magic. Like all of the grove’s sons who had been neutered before they were born, he was never able to channel more than a whisper of elemental magic, if that much. Being denied his rightful gift from the gods had twisted his mind, and for that I had pitied him greatly.

“Several young men from the Warrior’s Third heard the screams and went to investigate. Niall Ashcroft was one of them, and was the only one to survive.”

“Because Danica healed him!”

“Because he is an expert swordsman,” Padraig corrected. “Both he and Orion were found lying in a lake of blood in front of Halle Starseeker’s house. Niall’s injuries were multiple and severe, but Orion’s throat was cut.”

“Was anyone else hurt?” I asked, aghast at the news. “Halle?”

Arrie nodded. “She was badly injured, but Niall must have intervened before Orion could kill her. As for the rest of the earth druids, they all have either sustained life-threatening injuries, like Halle was, or are completely drained from the efforts of caring for the wounded, like Danica is.”

“Nobody with other elemental magics were hurt? Only earth druids?” I asked, glancing at my chosen, lying injured and sick and in desperate need of healing magic. “Only healers?”

Padraig nodded.

“And the only person who can tell us why is dead,” I said. “How very convenient.”

I had spent just enough time with my Traveler-turned-chosen to see the connections that others had missed. There could be no coincidence in the timing of last night’s unspeakable events.

“Angie!” Arrie chided. “What a terrible thing to say!”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, even though I wasn’t. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

Arrie Stoddard’s chosen, Leonidas Walsh, had been found in the forest, gunned down by bandits. He’d been the most skilled water elementalist in the grove, so powerful that he was able to manipulate both water and plants. Later, I’d heard rumors that the ArchDruid had arranged for his death, since he had refused to allow his sons to be born without magic or blocked from it in any way. Arrie had been left with four children to care for and another one on the way. A few years later, her eldest son Jason given the choice of flogging or banishment, just as Charlie had been. And just like my chosen, he had refused to leave.

Only thirteen or fourteen at the time, I had been shocked that a fifteen-year-old boy would be mercilessly whipped for the transgression of publically displaying his magical ability. When he broke, crying and begging for mercy, Jason was exiled and left to fend for himself. It was this event that had turned me against the ArchDruid, when before I’d happily been her pet my whole life.

Arrie was my mentor and had generously taken me under her wing to teach me everything she knew about working with elemental water. She had helped me when no one else would, and for that I owed her honor and respect. Turning to Uncle, I saw him scrutinizing my chosen’s tortured flesh with a critical eye.

“Aye,” said Padraig. “I haven’t had time to consider the possibilities, but you may be right.”

“Not you, too,” Arrie said. “Just because you have been embroiled in politics for a long time doesn’t mean you have to see plots and intrigue behind every tree.”

“That I have, and it’s difficult not to be suspicious,” Uncle replied. “It just seems odd that someone as irrational and unpredictable as Orion would be so methodical and specific when it came to choosing his victims.”

The water druid was silent for a few moments, then sighed. “Their homes were scattered all throughout the grove, too,” she said.

“Aye,” I said bitterly. “It was also quite fortuitous that the timing of such a thing allowed someone to come in here and slop excrement all over my chosen’s open wounds.” I paused. “Lucky, you might say.”

Uncle Padraig’s head snapped up. “What? When?” He jumped to his feet and strode to Charlie’s cot, crouching down to examine his wounds.

“I wasn’t here,” I said, looking down in shame. “Dianthe trapped me in Small House, and it took me all night to get out.”

“Did you put these bandages on him?”

“Yes. The book said not to let any herbs get into the open wounds, so I boiled them in a pot and soaked the bandages in them before putting them on his back.”

“That was smart.” Lifting a few inches of one dressing, Uncle Padraig cursed under his breath. “They’re getting infected,” he said. “We need to get some medicine into him before it gets worse.”

“I’ve been giving him echinacea and goldenseal tea for the infection and willow bark tea for the fever,” I said.

He regarded me intently. “When did you learn how to do all that?”

“Yesterday,” I said, gesturing at the books scattered about the infirmary.

“Impressive,” he said, nodding.

““I’ve been making him drink each tea every three or four hours,” I said, going to the counter to refill the tea strainers. “In fact, it’s time to give him some more and change his bandages, if you’ll boil me some water.”

“Of course.”

I handed him the full tea kettle and his elemental fire had it boiling in seconds. Next he moved to the cauldron and warmed the herbal water there.

“Isn’t Small House made entirely of earth?” Arrie asked as I poured hot water into the mugs. “You shouldn’t have been able to get out at all.”

“I tapped into the reservoir pipelines beneath the Elementalists’ Third,” I said. “Just like you taught me.”

Her smile was proud but also said. “I’m sorry you had to use it for such a purpose.”

I’m not. As soon as I was out, I turned the walls to mud and wrecked the place.”

Once the tea had steeped and the fresh bandages had soaked long enough, I went to wake Charlie. He was moving restlessly and mumbling in his sleep, and roused easily. Uncle knelt by the cot.

“How are you feeling, son?” he asked.

“If I say I’m better, will you tell Angie to stop making me drink that horse piss?”

Uncle chuckled. “I could, but that doesn’t mean she’ll listen.”

Charlie sighed. “In that case, I honestly feel terrible.” After a pause, he added: “My back is bad enough, without this headache on top of it. My head is pounding.”

A look of understanding passed between Uncle Padraig and me over Charlie’s head.

“The willow bark tea should help with that,” I said, feeling his forehead. It was blazing hot.

“Not as much as another dose of laudanum,” he said.

“I’ll get it,” Uncle told him. “Drink your tea. Angie says it’s time to change your bandages again.”

Charlie groaned, but he downed both mugs of tea and suffered through having the dressings removed and fresh ones applied.

“What happened the other night?” said Uncle, handing him a tiny dosing cup of the pain-relieving medicine.

“I don’t know,” he replied, avoiding Uncle Padraig’s sharp gaze.

Uncle nodded understanding. “Let me rephrase the question, because Angie already told me how she found you yesterday morning – Who came in here in the middle of the night and tied you to the cot?

My chosen was silent for several seconds.

“Darryn,” he finally replied. “Darryn Darkmane.”

 

Chapter 3 – Devotion

Chapter 3 – Devotion

You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.
~ Eleanor Roosevelt ~

With one book in my hand and several others scattered across the countertop, I pawed through Danica’s extensive collection of dried herbs for the ones required to make a poultice for an infected wound. I’d already prepared enough for multiple doses of “fever tea” and “infection tea,” as I’d begun thinking of them. Waking Charlie to give him more had been difficult. It had frightened me, so I decided not to give him any more laudanum until he woke up on his own.

Fortunately, there was an ample supply of the ones listed in the recipe, each herb carefully stored in a foot-high lidded crock. While the vicious stripes crisscrossing Charlie’s back weren’t showing signs of infection, I felt certain they would. His fever had taken away any illusions I might have entertained about that. If I began treating them immediately, perhaps the infection wouldn’t be as bad.

Panic had briefly returned when I couldn’t find the mortar and pestle in any of the cabinets. After a minute of frantic searching, I realized that they were right where I’d left them – on the counter. With my sleep-deprived mind still whirling with anxiety, I began grinding the herbs in the stone pestle. Having something to do, a project on which to focus, helped organize my frazzled thoughts. The work took my mind back to when Charlie had been shot and I’d been so jealous of the witches of Ward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a gentle touch on my cheek, Rhiannon bade me raise my chin.

“You don’t,” she’d said with a smile. “But I have a feeling that he will be the one to teach you.”

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

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

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

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

Where was Duncan? I hoped he had done as Charlie told him, leaving the grove for a safe hiding place until the storm surrounding Wolfric and Onóra’s escape had blown over. An earth druid was nigh impossible to find if he didn’t want to be found. As my cousin was leaving our company, he had already been wiping away his tracks. As the only man under forty with magic in a place where it had been taken away from all the other young men, he had walked a precarious path. Thus far, Duncan had avoided persecution for two reasons; the first being that his father refused to allow it to be taken away and probably would have burnt anyone who tried to a crisp. The second reason was that as he had grown older, he had spent more and more time away from the grove. Duncan once told me that it was so he could hear the earth mother better, but Sebrina’s constant, unspoken threat undoubtedly contributed to his frequent absences. Wherever he was, my cousin was more than capable of taking care of himself and staying out of trouble.

*  *  *

By evening the already swollen skin surrounding Charlie’s torn flesh had turned an angry color as the inevitable infection set in. Red streaks spread across his shoulders like the last rays of dying sunlight across a winter landscape, and his temperature continued to rise in spite of the willow bark tea.

I had switched from tea to coffee to fend off the encroaching fatigue and was still busy grinding herbs. I wasn’t much of a cook, but I could follow a recipe. Luckily, most of Danica’s books on herbal remedies were basically cookbooks for medicine. One provided a helpful formula for mint-infused water that could be applied to the skin to reduce body temperature. After boiling a few gallons of water and adding fresh mint leaves from a potted plant in Danica’s kitchen, I had set three full pitchers outside to cool.

The newest recipe contained a mixture of green tea and comfrey, for treating inflammation and infection of an open wound. The instructions warned against allowing tiny particles to get into a wound, so I steamed the dried leaves in a large cauldron until their healing essences had steeped into the water. I cut a roll of cotton bandages into long strips, then soaked them in the tea and comfrey, wringing the excess moisture out and allowing each to cool before applying them to each of the stripes on my chosen’s back.

There were twenty in all. Twenty lashes for stealing from the grove’s winter stores, to make sure that Wolfric and Onóra had something to eat on their journey. That had been Charlie’s idea. Somehow, he had known that ArchDruid Sebrina would demand that they be hunted down and brought back. He’d known that they’d have no time to hunt or forage for food.

“You did nothing to deserve this,” I whispered, once again sponging his face with a cool, damp cloth. “And so long as I live, I will never put you in such a situation again. Your life is too precious to me.”

Stealing food was not the real reason he’d been tied to the posts and flogged. Darryn Darkmane had witnessed my chosen helping our friends escape and instead of killing the rotten weasel like he should have, Charlie had knocked him unconscious instead. To repay this mercy, Darryn had carried the tale to the ArchDruid as soon as he woke up.

I tossed the washcloth back into the minted water and headed back to the kitchen. If I’d been there, I’d have put a blade in Darryn’s gut and left him for dead. Grinding more herbs with unnecessary force, I contemplated doing it still.

I was done with this place. We would no longer continue this useless crusade to change White Oak Grove. As soon as Charlie was well enough to travel, we were leaving this place forever. I would, of course, invite my family to come with us, as well as any like-minded members of the grove. Together we would create a new nemeton surrounded by oak trees, build new homes, and establish another grove, one that was truly dedicated to serving the gods. Our first mission would be to restore magic back to those who had been denied it. We would leave Sebrina and her sycophants to wither and die alone, enduring their elder years without children or a future.

First, however, I would see my love through this dreadful illness. I had every confidence that he would recover fully. Charlie Davis was young and strong, and above all else, a warrior. He would not go quietly into the dark shadows to join his ancestors. He would fight this battle as he had fought all the others, with pride and vigor and a lust for life.

It was concerning that his temperature continued to climb in spite of the willow bark tea. He woke more easily this last time, and I was reassured when he continued to drink both medicinal teas and then asked for water.

How could I have allowed this to happen?

“Stop it,” he whispered.

I pulled the damp washcloth away from his face. “What?”

He shook his head. “Stop blaming yourself.”

“I’m not,” I said, dabbing his neck and face.

“Yes, you are. That’s why you haven’t slept yet.”

“For your information, I haven’t slept because I’m taking care of you,” I replied, keeping my tone light.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

“I know.”

“Lie down with me,” he whispered. “Let me fall asleep beside you.”

I estimated that it was only a few hours until dawn and that the morning light would wake me before long. Nodding, I curled up on the cot beside his, and he took hold of my hand, bringing it first to his lips and then to his chest. His mighty heart thundered under my touch, its powerful beats thrumming throughout his body.

“I love you, Charlie.”

“I love you, too, Ang. More than anything.”

I know, I thought. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.

I almost wished he didn’t, and that he wasn’t.

Almost.

 

 

 

 

 

Child of Storms – Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – Determination

 

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength
while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
~ Lao Tzu ~

It took me the rest of the night to drill a hole through the wall of Small House, sending tubes of water in gradually increasing sizes through it until there was an opening large enough for me to escape. My work went quickly throughout the night, but once the sky lightened I had to take greater care lest anyone discover what I was doing. I sent feelers of water all around Small House to monitor for movement, particularly that of water elementalists who might have become aware of my activities.

Breaching the wall around mid-morning, I crawled out immediately. Once there, I crouched low to the ground and sent hundreds of tiny water streams throughout the prison walls, then commanded them to saturate the walls, turning them to mud. Thanking the water for answering me in my hour of need, I released it back into the aqueducts.

I turned my attention to Tiny House. Through the water-filled glass blocks that made up its walls, I could just make out the identity of the blurry form inside – Iriana Disney. She sat there with her arms crossed over her chest, looking mad as a hornet.

It was simplicity itself to destroy Tiny House. I released the water within the glass blocks, then decreased the viscosity of the glass itself. The walls dripped and melted like hot wax, slumping over into a pile of slag. Irri jumped to her feet, her blue eyes bigger and wider than ever.

“How did you get out of Small House?” the earth elementalist asked, stepping over the melted glass.

“You knew I was in there?”

“Oh, yes!” she said. “I tried to get you out. That’s how I ended up in Tiny House.”

I took both her hands in mine. It was a brave thing for Irri to have attempted, seeing as how her elemental magic was far more suited to healing. She’d never really learned to move earth effectively, a sorry state for an earth elementalist.

“Nobody will be put in those horrible places ever again,” I said. “You’d better hightail it to your parents’ house and hide out for a while, though.”

Irri frowned. “I hate it, but you’re right. The Elementalists’ Third isn’t a good place for either of us right now.”

“Be careful,” I said, giving her hands a squeeze before letting her go. She took off for her folks’ house, heading across the nearest yard and avoiding the main streets.

I ran straight to Danica’s house without a single thought about bathing or changing my dirty clothes. My steps slowed once I reached the footpath through her yard, however. Even from the outside, the place seemed eerily quiet. The front door hung open, swaying slightly in the breeze, giving the place a look of abandonment.

My eyes were drawn to the walkway, where fresh snow had filled our footprints from the night before. There were other others, however, that carried a tale. The first set of prints were small, probably a woman’s, hurried and smeared, as though she had run out of the house and down the walk in a mad dash to accomplish some important task. The second set of prints headed toward the house, treading carefully in the steps of previous visitors as though on a mission that required stealth.

Feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the frigid winter air, I pushed open the door and stepped into Danica’s house. It was colder inside than out, if that were possible. No fire crackled in the fireplace; it had been extinguished by water thrown so forcefully that frozen ashes were sprayed out across the hearth.

I walked to the back of her home, past the row of cots with their curtains pulled closed around them, past shelves of ointments, salves, and jars of herbs and into the washroom beyond. The back door was standing wide open. I couldn’t for the life of me think of a single reason that the earth druid might have for leaving a single door open, much less both of them.

Had Danica taken Charlie somewhere else to recuperate? Had even her home become too dangerous a place for him?

Moving back into the main room, I pondered the closed curtains, remembering that each one was always tied back unless the cot it accompanied was occupied. Filled with sudden dread, I threw each one aside, revealing empty cot after empty cot until I came to the last. I nearly ripped the cloth from its ceiling support and gasped aloud when I saw Charlie lying there face down, his tortured back crusted with blood and filth, his lips blue and his body still.

He’s dead! They abandoned him and he froze to death in the night!

I sank to my knees, trying to hold in a choked sob of horror with both hands. Overwhelmed by deep emotion, a cry tore from my throat my throat, echoing off the walls. In the next instant, Charlie came alive, futilely attempting to rise – his hands and feet were tied to the legs of the cot. Relief and horror warred within me as I reached for him.

“Who did this to you?” I cried, touching his face with my hands. “Who bound you like this?” His skin was warm in spite of the cold, and he began to shiver.

I drew my belt knife and sawed through the bonds, only able to release his limbs. The cruel ropes had chafed his wrists raw, but I was unable to remove them entirely because of his wild thrashing. All I could do was try and calm him, speaking softly and soothingly as possible with my voice cracking and tears running down my face.

Shhh,” I said, stroking his hair and thinking in a moment of insanity that I should have brought the hat I’d knitted for him. “All is well, I am here. You’re safe, my love. You’re safe.”

“Angie?” he croaked, finally relaxing now that he had recognized me.

“Yes, my love, I’m here. I’m here!”

He laid his head down and I noticed the wounds on his back, smeared with a disgusting green-brown crust.  Leaning in close, I took a whiff and swiftly jerked back at the foul odor. Shock and disbelief paralyzed me for a moment, but I quickly recovered. There was no time for speculating on who might have done this, for Charlie would die if he stayed chilled and dirty. Moving to the fireplace, I tossed a few logs into it and pointed a finger at them. A few bursts of white-hot spirit magic had set them afire, and next I fetched clean washcloths and soap from the sink. A small amber bottle of laudanum caught my eye on the way back to the row of cots. I needed to scrub Charlie’s back clean, and the strong pain relieving tincture would keep him from suffering too much.

“Here, drink this,” I said, helping him sit up and putting the bottle against his lips. “Just a little sip.”

He tossed back rather more than I would have liked, but I wasn’t the one who’d been cruelly lashed.

“I’m sorry, love, but I don’t have time to let that start working before I scrub your back.”

“Just do it.” His voice was hoarse.

I went to work, wetting his skin and rubbing with the soapy washcloth. Charlie moaned, bracing himself with his hand on his knees, arms shaking. Teeth clenched, the muscles in his jaw worked as he tried to keep from crying out. Thoroughly cleaning his wounds took several attempts, and I held his hands or stroked his face between times to give him a break from what was undoubtedly torture. I rinsed his back with warm water one last time, and could no longer see any visible contamination. Drying his skin with the gentlest of hands, I helped him move to a clean cot.

After throwing the soiled cot out the back door along with the washcloths and towels, I returned to his side.

“You should lie down,” I said.

“No.”

Reasoning that the laudanum would put an end to his stubbornness far sooner than I ever could, I went to the cabinet where Danica kept her tea remedies. The little glass jars were labeled with the names of myriad herbs, most of which I’d never heard of. I don’t know why I had expected to find jars labeled for their purpose instead of their ingredients; an earth healer would need no such assistance. A frustrated sigh escaped my lips.

“Are you all right, Ang?”

I turned to see Charlie gazing at me with an intensity that was surprising, considering that he was exhausted and in terrible pain.

“You’re asking me?” I said, incredulous.

“Were you hurt last night?”

“No, I was… No. I’m fine.”

“Good.”

He didn’t ask where I’d been, or why he’d been abandoned in his time of need. I hesitated to tell him the truth, afraid he wouldn’t stay put and rest. I went and knelt before him, placing my hands on his.

“I was… Sebrina locked me up.”

Bemused, either from confusion or the laudanum, Charlie quirked an eyebrow. “What prison could possibly hold you?”

“A box constructed entirely of earth, using magic.”

“Ah.” He frowned. “How did you get out?”

“As it turns out, water is not the useless element the ArchDruid thinks it is.”

The corner of his mouth curled in a half-smile, and to my astonishment, he chuckled.

“That’s my girl,” Charlie said, then placed a kiss on my forehead.

He was always so brave and strong. He was selfless and caring when he shouldn’t have been – when no one else would have been able to – and it nearly broke my heart.

“Have you slept?” he asked.

“No. It took me all night to get out of the prison,” I said, then added: “It’s just past noon now.”

“Where is everybody?” he asked, gingerly craning his head to look out the window.

“It’s too quiet. Something’s wrong.”

He was right, but I didn’t care about anything outside this room. As far as I was concerned, nothing could be more wrong than the events of last night. I placed a hand over his forehead, letting my fingers trace the contours of his face.

“You feel hot.”

“Your hand feels good,” he said.

“I think you’re going to need more than that,” I said. “I’m going to see if I can find something for you.”

He nodded and I went back to the cabinet full of herbs in jars, spying the container of willow bark tea almost immediately. Why didn’t I see that before? I knew about willow bark tea for treating fever and wasted no time setting the tea kettle over the fire.

I wish I was a fire elementalist. Uncle Padraig could have brought it to boiling in seconds. Where in the grove was he?

“Don’t fall asleep,” I told Charlie, noticing his heavy eyelids. “I’m making you some tea.”

He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like Quakes, she’s trying to poison me, but I ignored it. It was a good sign that he had the strength to protest. While waiting for the water to boil, I perused the titles of a shelf of books with titles such as The Natural Apothecary, Wisdom of the Earth, and The Alchemy of Plants. Running my finger along the edge of the shelf, I saw a book titled Fever and Infection and grabbed it. I flipped through it to find something – anything, really – that might help.

The glass jars weren’t in alphabetical order, so I guessed that they were organized by purpose. Using the book as a reference, I decided echinacea and goldenseal were what Charlie needed to help him fight an infection, along with the willow bark tea for fever. By that time, steam was rising from the kettle. I filled a large tea ball with the willow bark, dropped it into a teapot, added a couple of cinnamon sticks, and poured hot water over it. A quick search of the kitchen cabinets provided me with a second teapot. There wasn’t another tea strainer so I spooned the herbs into a square of cheesecloth and tied it tight before dropping it into the second pot.

Charlie was starting to nod off when the fever tea was ready, but I put it in his hand and made him drink all of it. Surprisingly, he downed it with little resistance.

“What did you put in that?” he asked, eyeing the bottom of the empty mug with suspicion.

“Cinnamon and honey. There’s no reason not to sweeten it up a bit.”

“Tell that to Grandmother,” he grumbled.

I fetched the second mug and handed it to him. “I added honey to this one, too, but I don’t think it improved the taste much.”

Charlie took a sip, barely suppressing a shudder. “You’re right about that,” he said, and drank all of it in a few swallows. I set the cup aside and fluffed a couple of pillows, placing them on one end of his cot.

“You should sleep now.”

“So should you,” he murmured, slurring the words.

“I will,” I lied.

He didn’t argue, and even let me help him lie down and position his pillows for the most comfort. Charlie murmured my name and I kissed his heated brow, then watched as his eyes slowly drifted closed, their dark lashes resting against his cheek.

I didn’t know much about healing since it wasn’t within my elemental skill, but realized how much danger he was in nevertheless. The multiple lacerations inflicted with the whip would have left him vulnerable to infection even without further assault from offal. Panic began to rise in my chest. Danica was gone and Padraig disappeared with her.

Charlie was right. There was something wrong in the grove, but I couldn’t leave him for a moment to seek help. At best, he would fall dreadfully ill; at worst, any one of the many druids who resented his presence here could kill him in his present state.

I had to be strong; now was not the time for me to give in to fear and weakness. There was no earth healer to cure him with magic, but there was medicine. Danica’s infirmary was stocked with herbs and tinctures, bandages and dressings, the supplies to make a plethora of remedies and medicines, and a shelf full of books on how to use it all.

Pouring myself a cup of tea, I set to work.