Child of Storms – Chapter 11

Chapter 11 – Anarchy

All great changes are preceded by chaos.
~ Deepak Chopra ~

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

Father wasn’t finished, however.

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

Raising his sword to the sky, he bellowed:  “I call upon you, great Zeus, most glorious and greatest, and to Helios, who sees and hears all things!  Hear me, Gaea, earth mother!  Listen, all you gods and goddesses in the realms above and below, and witness my oath this day:  this heinous crime will not go unpunished!  By the earth, sea, and sky, and by the blood I have spilled today, I swear that I shall not rest until I have found out the truth of what has befallen him!”

Shocked silence greeted his pronouncement.

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

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

“Blood sacrifice,” Padraig said, his tone grim.

“I can’t believe it!”

“Like your hearth culture doesn’t perform blood sacrifices.”  He gave me a knowing look.  Heat rose to my cheeks.  People outside the Yoruba hearth culture always assumed we performed blood sacrifices, simply because pre-Fracture witch doctors and voodoo priests had also worshipped the Orisha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They didn’t kill people!”

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

I could only stare at him.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

Who truly dehumanized the scapegoat?

The murderer himself?

The society that condemned him?

I didn’t lose any sleep over it that night.

I hated Darryn Darkmane.

I was glad he was dead.

*  *  *

“I want you to stay with Padraig.”

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

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

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

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

“Angie!” protested Danica, clearly mortified.

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.  Nothing could be worse than losing Charlie.  Nothing could be worse than missing his quick smile, his strong arms around me, his determination and courage.  Nothing could be worse than knowing I’d failed him, that I was the one truly responsible for his suffering and death.  He’d been my rock and now he was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

As much as Uncle Padraig tried to protect me from what was occurring in the grove, rumors of my father’s activities intruded nevertheless.  Over the next few days, people kept dropping by the house at all hours, beseeching Padraig to at least talk to Liam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not if they’re smart.”

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

“His daughter’s chosen is missing,” said Uncle. “Can you blame him?”  His tone was deceptively mild.  I say deceptively because the temperature was starting to rise.  I started to wonder if perhaps my father’s questionable activities stemmed from a sense of guilt.  If so, it was too little, too late.

“Davis is dead,” Adalwulf stated with his characteristic bluntness.  A loud sob rose up unbidden and escaped my lips, bringing with it a flood of tears.  It brought Padraig to his feet and roused him like nothing else had.

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

Adalwulf stiffened, casting a quick look my way, then turning his eyes back to Padraig.  “My apologies, Angelina.  You are right, Padraig.  What you say is true.”

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

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

“Padraig, you must listen to reason.  Even Danica says there was no hope for him without magic—”

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

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

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

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

Adalwulf’s frowned mightily at Padraig’s dishonorable attitude and display of temper.

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

“And now that he’s gone, has even one person offered to perform a ritual for him?  Has anyone lit a single candle or filled even a cup of water?  Has one prayer been spoken or an offering for him given to the gods?”

The other man’s answering silence spoke volumes.

“That’s right.  Nobody gave a damn about my family, but now that they are inconvenienced, I’m supposed jump right up and fix their problem,” Padraig said, his voice now husky. “You go tell those selfish, cowardly arseholes that I don’t give a shit about them or their problems.”

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

“One more thing.”

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

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

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Child of Storms – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – Overwhelmed

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

After Uncle Padraig saw Danica safely upstairs and in bed, I begged him to find Duncan.

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

“Please. Just try.”

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

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

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

He loved Charlie, too, after all.

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

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

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

Uncle looked at me with pity and I turned away, unable to bear it. Everyone else might be giving up on Charlie, but I would not.

“I’ll try,” he said.

* * *

I spent the next few hours alternately paging through books and bathing Charlie in mint water. His fever continued to rage; he became delirious, moving restlessly and mumbling. I knew that fever was the body’s way to fight off infection, but was also aware that too high a temperature could be damaging. One passage suggested that if a patient had an extreme fever in winter, to pack ice and snow on and around their body. Grabbing a bucket, I ran to the back yard and scooped snow into it with my bare hands until it was full. I packed snow into his armpits and between his legs, then scooped a few handfuls onto the back of his neck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

That evening, I used up the remaining linen squares making more poultices. If Danica didn’t have another bolt of linen cloth, I’d need somebody to bring some. Putting that concern out of my head for later, I removed the now dried and nearly crusted dressings from Charlie’s back. As I peeled back the linen, it stuck to the torn and ragged flesh, causing it to ooze blood. He moaned, jerking his head and moving his arms as though trying to crawl away. I bit my lip hard until I tasted blood; I would not cry.

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

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

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

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

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

No, not near dying. He was dying.

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

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

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

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

“I love you, too, Ang,” he said with a little smile. Then he closed his eyes and drifted away again. I pushed my cot over until it touched his and lay beside him, holding his hand in mine, afraid to fall asleep.

If this was all the time remaining to us, I wanted to experience every moment. If there was no preventing his death, I wanted to be present, to watch over and guard him, to meet whatever needs he would have, and to fully give myself to him the way he had always done for me.