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.”
* * *
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.
“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.
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.”
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.