Brief Hiatus

Just wanted to apologize for not having any new chapters for a month and a half.  I’ve missed my (self-set) deadline for having Druid Chronicles book 3 (DC3) out, so I’m hard at work on that.  My current plan is to have DC3 finished by Aug 19th and off to my beta readers by the end of the month.  Then I can start on Child of Storms again, as well as starting work on DC4.

I’ll have to devote some time to rewriting DC3 and formatting it for publication in November, with a goal release date sometime this December.

So hang in there a few more weeks, and we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled program. 😉

Child of Storms – Chapter 13

Chapter 13 – Courage

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero ~

Some days later, Niall Ashcroft showed up at our door, and I watched with no small surprise as Uncle Padraig not only let him inside, but also embraced him warmly.

“Come on in, son,” he said. “You’ll catch your death of cold in this weather.  Have a seat and I’ll fix you some tea.”

“Thank you, sir, but I don’t want to trouble you,” Niall replied, limping heavily. “I only came to speak with Angelina a moment.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Uncle replied, dropping a tea ball into a mug and pouring steaming water over it. “You’re welcome in my home anytime.  Have you eaten?”

Niall looked positively thunderstruck, which was understandable considering that their last encounter was when Charlie had been cut down from the whipping post.  In spite of the fact that he was a privileged son of the Tetrarch, Sebrina’s group of sycophants, Niall had wept to see the beating that had been so ruthlessly administered to my chosen.  He’d even risked the ArchDruid’s wrath by trying to help Charlie to his feet afterward.  That was when Uncle had shoved him away, barking that he should get away, that he had no place there.

Finding his voice at last, Niall said, “Yes, sir, I have.”

Uncle eyed him critically.  “You look a mite peaked.  I’ll fix us some beans and rice.  You could use the iron.”

Indecision and disbelief warred on Niall’s face, but he nodded.  “Thank you, sir.  I appreciate your generosity.”

“It’s nothing.”  Padraig shrugged.

Niall’s heroic action, standing between Orion and Shekhar Patel, defending the healer and nearly losing his own life as a result, had heightened his standing in Padraig’s eyes.  After all, Danica could very well have been one of Orion’s victims, had Uncle not been with her that dreadful night.  I considered him for a few moments, finally remembering how my chosen had decided to trust him, which meant he’d been worthy in Charlie’s eyes as well.  Rising from my nest on the couch, I went to greet him.

Uncle Padraig was right.  Nualla’s son stood on his own two feet, but that was the best that could be said of him.  His naturally fair skin was almost as white as his blond hair, telling a story of too much blood lost.  Angry red scars dotted his forearms where Orion’s blade had managed to get past his guard, and a slash ran from the right side of his neck and across his chest, visible where the laces of his shirt were loose.  An ugly, gnarled scar marred his handsome features, cutting through his left eyebrow, disappearing below the bandage over his left eye, and reappearing to carve a furrow in his cheek.

Even though I’d heard how badly he’d been hurt, it was shocking to see the damage with my own eyes.  Taking his hands on mine, it was a relief to feel the strength that remained there.  We’d been friends as children, and I’d spent several years believing that he was the one who would be my chosen.  I cared about him still; I would care about him always.  It made my heart ache.  All his life, he’d tried so hard to be the obedient son, the loyal druid, the good friend, the one who followed the rules and tried to do right.  He’d endured having his magic taken away, had worked hard to master the sword and everything else asked of him, had gracefully accepted it when I rejected his amorous advances, and had even let go of his anger and resentment of the man who had replaced him as my chosen warrior.

“You shouldn’t be out in this cold,” I said. “Danica said you nearly died.”  I led him to the chair by the fire, but even though the wound to his right thigh had to be painful, he didn’t sit.

“The cold doesn’t matter,” he said. “I came to offer my condolences.”  He swallowed hard.

Grief sliced through me like a knife.  Though the pain was always present, at times it tired of mauling me and crawled back into its cave – until the next time it chose to attack.  “Thank you,” I managed to say.

Niall shook his head.  “Do not thank me.  I did nothing to help you.  I did nothing to stop… all this.”  He looked down at his feet, clenching his fists.

“None of us did,” I said. “Me least of all.”

“Now, Angie…” Uncle began.

“No, don’t say it again.  None of these horrible things would have come about if not for me.  It is my fault and mine alone that my chosen died.  I chose to seek him out.  It was I who badgered him into coming here, and it was I who made him stay.”

This was when Uncle usually commented that Charlie was a warrior through-and-through, and that he’d chosen to remain of his own free will, but he respected my wishes and held his tongue.

“I am glad you did,” Niall replied. “I should not be, but I am.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.  Had he come here to offer his condolences only to turn around and say how happy he was that Charlie was dead?  Was it so important to Niall that I be bound to him?

“Remember all those books we read when we were kids?  All those stories of dyads that went through trials and danger?  The books always said those people were afraid, but I never really believed it.”  He shook his head.  “I thought that they were brave because they didn’t feel fear – at least, until Davis taught me otherwise.  He showed me what true courage is.  He was a good man, and I am privileged to have known him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” Uncle said. “You’ve plenty of courage.  You demonstrated that when you stood up to Darryn and Orion.”

He held up a hand.  “Please, Master Padraig, allow me to finish.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about this since that night, and need to get this off my chest.”

“Very well.  Go on, then.”

“All I’ve done while confined to bed is to go over and over everything that’s happened since Davis came to the grove,” Niall continued. “At first I thought he was a fool for setting one foot within our borders, and then for refusing to back down even though we made things as difficult as we could for him.  I became convinced he was a madman, until Mabon, when Onóra threw that huge fireball at you and he shielded you with his own body.  It was then that I figured out that he was fearless because of his love for you.  That is when I began to consider him in a different light.”

He smiled ruefully.  “It’s hard to hate someone else for loving the same person you do – especially when he is willing to risk his life for love and you are not.”

“Oh, Niall…”

“After that I knew I was not meant to be your chosen warrior,” he continued. “If I was, I wouldn’t have been so afraid all the time.”

“He wasn’t fearless,” I said. “He was terrified that day.”

“Terrified for you, perhaps.  But not for himself.”

“I assure you, he was afraid many times.  You just never felt the way his heart pounded in his chest, or all the times he woke from a nightmare after that happened,” I said. “He was scared during the Autumn Moon gathering.  He was afraid that being made a master would infuriate Sebrina.  He was worried someone would get hurt on the gunnery range.  He was nervous about approaching Wolfric on Samhain, after we all watched him set the fields ablaze with magic he wasn’t even supposed to have.  He feared someone would find out he was helping Wolfric and Onóra escape.  And he was terrified when they tied him to the whipping post.”

“He couldn’t have been that afraid!” Niall snapped. “Davis never backed away from any of those things!”

“Were you afraid when Orion came at you with a sword in his hand?” Padraig asked, wandering in from the kitchen.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” Niall said. “But I know how to use a sword, and I practice every day.”

Padraig nodded.  “And how did you feel when you realized you had to face both Darryn and Orion?”

“I thought I might piss myself,” he said.  Then, as if remembering I was present, added:  “I beg your pardon for being crude.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” I said, feeling a rush of warmth for him.

Uncle nodded.  “If you were that scared, why didn’t you run?”

Niall frowned and gave him a look that suggested he was being ridiculous.  “And leave a healer defenseless?”

“Shekhar knows how to fight with a sword.”

“That may be so, but he is old!”

“Pfaugh!  Sixty-two isn’t so old.”

“It’s too old to fight a couple of young men!” Niall protested. “Especially one who is insane!  Have you seen Orion in a rage?”

“I have, and it is a fearsome sight.  Yet still you chose to face him.”

“Of course I did.”

“Even though you were afraid?”

The indignant look on Niall’s face faded away to one of comprehension.

“Being brave doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear.  It means you don’t let that fear stop you from doing what you know is right.  That’s what courage really is, son.  So please believe me when I say you have it in spades.”  Padraig clapped him on the shoulder. “So relax, sit by the fire, and put some food in your belly.  You’ll feel better for it.”

Niall did as he was told, grimacing as he dropped onto the chair cushion without his usual grace, a hiss of pain escaping his lips.

“I’m sorry you were hurt,” I said. “Will your leg heal completely?”

“Danica and Shekhar both say that it will heal and that I won’t limp forever,” he said. “The rest of my scars, however…”  His long slender fingers brushed over the bandage on his left eye. “Some things even magic cannot repair.”

“I wish I could go back and change things.”

“I have chosen to believe that this fate was devised by the gods for some higher purpose that I do not yet comprehend,” he said.

“Is that…”  I hesitated, the desire to respect his privacy warring with the need to know.  “Is that how you have survived all this time?  Is that how you stayed sane when your closest friends became consumed with the desire for magic?”

In that moment, I saw everything – the anguish, the despair, and the betrayal – reflected in his scarred face.

“Orion stopped believing in the Shining Ones when he was a child,” Niall replied.  “He said that if there really were gods, no one could have taken away our magic.  At first he ridiculed my faith, but later succumbed to despair, then grew mad from the craving.”

“And Darryn?”

“I think that for him, obtaining high status by being partnered with a powerful elementalist was a way to make up for lacking magic.  How he railed against me when Davis arrived, telling me I needed to ‘stand up for myself.’  I regret that I allowed him to talk me into taking actions I might not have otherwise.”  Niall rubbed his face with both hands.  “Onóra was just an object to him, a thing to be used in the pursuit of his own power.  He just could not understand why I was willing to let you go.”

Padraig brought us each a bowl of beans and rice before retiring to his own room.  In those days I was rarely hungry and ate simply because Uncle had taken the time to prepare it.  This time, however, I ate so that Niall would also.  If I did not eat, he might not either, and he needed the sustenance to heal his injuries.  The silence between us gave me time to process the things he had said, and upon reflection I felt grateful that Sebrina had wanted to partner me with Niall and not Darryn, for it easily could have gone the other way – especially since Betrys Darkmane fairly worshipped the ground the ArchDruid walked on.  Part of me wondered if she had been moved to accept Wolfric because of her abhorrence of Darryn, rather than the genuine respect and desire that a dyad bond deserved.

“I’d better return to Shekhar’s house before it gets too dark,” Niall said, gripping the armrests and rising awkwardly from his chair.  “Will you thank Master Padraig for me?”

“Of course,” I said, walking him to the door. “Is it wise for you to walk so far?”

“He told me I needed to be up and about more,” Niall replied. “Besides, Charger is outside.  He’s been remarkably gentle since the attack.”  A shadow of a smile crossed his lips.  “I think Shekhar told him to mind his manners.”

Indeed, the big black horse was munching hay in Padraig’s front yard.  Charger raised his head and ambled over to Niall, who laid his hand on the horse’s forehead.  I’d never seen the stallion so calm and thought it likely that the healer had told the stallion to look after his young master, as I had done with Steel so many months ago when Charlie had been severely injured.

“There is something more I would like to say to you,” Niall said, looking back at me.  “If you wish it, I will honor my agreement to partner with you as we originally intended.”

I should have expected his offer, but it caught me off guard.  My first reaction was to scream at him and throw him off our porch, but pain and grief caused the words to lodge in my throat.  It was fortunate, for we had both suffered enough and should not be the cause of further injury to one another.

“And what of your own chosen, should you bind with me?”

“You know about that?”

“There were no secrets between my chosen and me.”

“I am a man of my word,” he said. “While I have received her fetch, I have not as yet accepted the bond.”  He looked down at his hands, stroking the horse’s soft face.  “Under the circumstances, she will understand, I think.”

I knew for a fact that she would not.  Even if I could bear the thought of someone standing in Charlie’s stead, I could never steal away another elementalist’s chosen warrior, selected for her by the ancestors and the Shining Ones.

“No.”  I shook my head.  “I appreciate your offer, for you are as generous as you are brave.  But you have given up enough, Niall.  Your chosen is a gift, given to you by the Shining Ones, an even greater one than magic,” I said. “Accept that bond, for it is precious.  Cherish it, and don’t ever let your chosen go.”

The disappointment was heavy in his expression and I could tell he didn’t believe my words.  Once again, he accepted rejection with grace and dignity, offering me the gesture of druid respect as he took his leave.  Even though the decision had been mine, I felt a pang of loss as I watched him ride away, for I knew he would not ask again.

It was all for the best, and maybe one day he would understand.  Something like the bond between chosen could not be understood until it was experienced.  Niall would not believe it if I told him, but I would give up every bit of magic I possessed – every spark of spirit, every drop of water, and every whisper of air, just to have Charlie back again.

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.”

Child of Storms – Chapter 10

Chapter 10 – Retribution

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

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

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

“Aye,” said my father. “Whoever would have thought I’d have raised a turncoat?”

“The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I said, feeling my eyes burn with tears.

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

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

My brother?  Acting without thinking?  Unheard of!”

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

Low muttering, gradually growing louder, reached our ears.

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

“Aye,” my father replied.

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It seems likely,” Father said.

“We should leave.”  The words had left my lips before I was even aware of the thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle nodded agreement, and I could see that neither Father nor Danica could argue the point.

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

Danica’s face brightened.  “We could spend the cold months trying to oust Sebrina,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Why had I not understood that before?

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

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

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

“Aye,” he said.

“Besides,” said Uncle, “All the political maneuvering should obscure our plans to make a permanent departure from the grove.  Sebrina will never know what hit—”  He paused, craning his neck to peer out the window.  “What is that commotion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A restraining hand fell upon my shoulder.

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

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

“You can’t handle this,” he said gently.

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

“I will not fail you again, Angie,” said Father. “Give me your trust?”

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

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

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

“As was I,” Father replied.

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

“How can a man’s luck be so bad that the entire Everlight clan wants the pleasure of killing him?” he asked.  Shaking his head ruefully, but still wearing a small, bitter smile, Uncle returned to stand beside me, putting his arm around my shoulders.

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

“By all means, boy,” Padraig replied with a grin. “Please do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liam is toying with him,” Padraig grumbled.

“Why?”

“He’s making a point.”

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

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

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

Uncle was right; my father could have killed the weasel with that first blow.  He’d intentionally aimed for the sword and not the man.  Now, however, his posture had changed.  I’d seen my father sparring with others – usually my uncle, but sometimes the other masters – enough times to recognize the change.  He advanced upon Darryn in a manner I’d never seen, his body sinuous and lithe like that of a tiger, the motion of his limbs tight and controlled like a snake about to strike.

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

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

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

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

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

I’d never understood exactly why until this very moment.

“On your knees, Darryn Darkmane.”

“What?!”

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

“Now, here in the presence of your fellow citizens, you will relate exactly what happened when you and Niall Ashcroft accompanied Davis on his mission to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Ithaca 37 shotgun.”

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

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

Thus, when my father approached Charlie about using his shotgun – the Ithaca 37 – as a model to manufacture more firearms and suggested that he should teach our young men without magic to use them, he had readily agreed.  Resentful of Charlie’s presence from the moment he stepped into the grove, Sebrina had twisted the idea in order to do away with him under the guise of sending him off with Niall and Darryn to act as “witnesses” to observe just how well his shotgun operated in a combat situation.  And even though Charlie had saved both their lives from bandits, Darryn had ruthlessly stabbed him in the back.  If it hadn’t been for my cousin Duncan following them – sent by my father to watch his back – he would have died.

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

Just like my father.

And Father had asked me to trust him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye,” Father said. “That I did.”

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

Child of Storms – Chapter 9

Chapter 9 – Rage

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

I stood there alone in the snow-covered street, fighting the fear and anguish that were trying to return and fill the hollow place in my heart.   My beloved was lost, my family was at each other’s throats, and my home was in turmoil.  Only one person was responsible for all of it, and I was not about to let her escape justice.

Sebrina.

Just as she was at fault for bringing misery to everyone in the grove, she was to blame for my chosen’s disappearance.  No one else could have entered a healer’s house to carry a dying man out of it except the ArchDruid or her foul minions, for no one dared question them.  I was convinced that I would indeed find him with our treacherous leader, lying wounded and broken at her feet as she sat upon the wooden chair she treated as a throne.  No, it was not enough that she’d had him whipped in full view of the entire grove – she would have no satisfaction until she’d seen him gasp his last breath.

Water magic gave me secure footing and air gave me speed, while spirit energized my body as I sprinted down the cobblestone street toward the ArchDruid’s office, jumping fences and cutting across gardens and yards.  I hit the front door so hard that the stained glass shattered when it smashed into the wall.  The Tetrarch were lolling about like sows at a trough – all present except Nualla – with queen pig Sebrina sitting on her ruling seat looking self-satisfied with the events she had wrought – as though the torture and abuse of a single man had been a difficult task, a mighty weight lifted from her shoulders.

I would show her the meaning of abuse, if she failed to give Charlie back to me.

“Angelina! What are you—”

My tornadic wind wrapped Sebrina in tight bands of air before she could move, shocking her into silence.  Lightning flew from my fingertips, stunning Pollona and Dianthe, sending them sliding to the floor before they could mount an offense.  I created a spinning vortex that sucked water and snow into the building and slammed Betrys against the wall, trapped by a frosty bubble. Like me – and like Sebrina – she possessed the elements of spirit, air, and water.  I valued water as an element and could manipulate it in any number of ways.  They disdained it, and so they were much less skilled at using water magic than I.

Where is he?!?!” I shrieked. “What have you done with him?!

Casting a desperate glance at Sebrina, Betrys’ eyes betrayed her terror.  And well she should be terrified of me, for they had all taught and demonstrated the very best offensive tactics a triple threat could bring to bear, challenging me with praise and derision, drilling it into me until I could channel all three of my elements simultaneously without effort.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Betrys cried, when no help was forthcoming from her evil overlord.

Sebrina glared at me, her sapphire eyes sparking with spirit magic. I could feel her clawing at the magic bonds and intensified the force, causing her to cry out in pain.

She does,” I snarled, loosening the strictures and snugging them tightly again. Sebrina gasped for breath, and then wasted it on a scream.  This time there was a slight note of fear riding the edge of her cry.

There came the sound of running feet, boots on the path outside.

I’d forgotten one thing.

Her oath-sworn protector, First Warrior to the ArchDruid.

My father.

“Angelina!” he thundered.

With the barest of gestures, I hit him with a straight-line wind that slammed him against the far wall.  Shock and anger braced his features as spirit magic lit his eyes a glowing blue.

“Stop this insanity!” he commanded, climbing to his feet.

“Not until she tells me where she’s taken him!”

I allowed Sebrina another breath.  She wasted it again.

“I don’t know where he is!  I’ve done nothing to that wasteland dog!”

My father would never hurt me or strike back with his own magic, but since he was foolish enough to take a step toward me, a flick of my finger pinned him to the wall.  His jaw dropped in astonishment, but I ignored him and glared at the bitch who had brought so much suffering and despair into my life.

I refused to back down, reveling in the power this rage had given me.  I, Angelina Everlight, a mere elementalist, had downed four druids fully trained in the use of elemental combat and was holding them helpless.  Pollona moaned and I hit her again with a spirit bolt.  As an afterthought, I smacked Dianthe with another as well to prevent her from rising.

“You’ve done nothing to him?” I said, walking slowly toward her and squeezing her ribs more tightly with each step. “Nothing?”

A high-pitched squeal, more outrage than pain, gusted from Sebrina’s lips. “Nothing he didn’t deserve,” she gasped.

“Half the world was dying of thirst last summer, all so you could have strawberries for breakfast!” I yelled. “But you’ll whip a man over some dried fruit? What punishment should be meted out to a woman who steals water?  A whipping?  Or something worse?”

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

I didn’t know if Sebrina was lying because she hadn’t told Father about hoarding the rain and creating a drought from Lone Oak to Kingston as a result, or if she really thought I was that stupid.  Standing beside the well at Chasity’s home in Lone Oak, I had smelled the stink of Sebrina’s magic as soon as I’d taken hold of the clouds.

“Don’t I?  Who do you think ripped that artificial weather pattern away from you?  It took every bit of magic within me, but I created a storm that gave the rain back to those who needed it!”

We needed it!” Sebrina shouted. “That rain was for the grove!”

A snowball flew through the door and into my hand. From it I commanded three whips to rise, allowing them to wave about in the air like venomous serpents.

“What sort of punishment should you be given for causing a drought that brought so much misery and deprivation, I wonder?” I said, my voice as cold and cutting as the winter air.  “If whipping is the price for taking some dried fruit, what should be the punishment for stealing an entire season of live-giving water?”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

I sharpened a slice of air and lashed it through Sebrina’s clothing, rendering her naked in seconds. I started to feel the drain on my magic – as an elementalist, I did not yet have a direct channel of magic from the Shining Ones that a druid did.  I was limited by the Well within me, but it was vast and deep.  I had plenty left for one last act, and brought forth three more ice whips.

“Liam!” she screamed, but I had made certain he would do nothing to stop me.  He wasn’t even trying to unravel the air that held him pressed against the wall.  In fact, he was paying me no attention at all, his green eyes regarding Sebrina with loathing.  For all his loyalty to her, my father was a true druid, one who deeply cared about balance and who would never alter weather patterns for the good of only a few people.  Liam Everlight used his magic only for the greater good.

“Isn’t this what you wanted, ArchDruid?” I taunted. “For my whole life, you’ve called me weak.  You always say I’m soft, and that I don’t have what it takes to survive outside the grove.  Let me show you how weak I am. Let me show you how soft.”

The icy tentacles undulated toward Sebrina, caressing her bare flesh as they wrapped around her legs and torso like thin wires.  Two more wrapped around her arms, then the last about her neck, caressing it like the lips of a lover.  The paper-thin, razor-sharp whips left thin red lines that marred her flawless ivory skin, and Sebrina shrieked.

There was a crunch of boots on glass, but I didn’t turn around. No one would be such a fool as to startling me into dropping the ArchDruid, or slicing her to ribbons.

Unless, of course, they didn’t care.

“Well, now,” said Uncle Padraig. “Isn’t this a pretty picture.”

I expected some warning from Father such as Stay out of this, brother, but he remained silent.

“I swear by the gods, Liam, if you don’t get her under control, I will exile her forever!”  Sebrina’s voice had finally reached the high pitch that meant she was well and truly afraid.

“What in the name of Ọbàtálá makes you think I would want to stay?”

The calm in my voice pronounced my scorn and disdain more loudly than any shout.  It truly was the calm before the storm.  There was a tempest brewing, a hurricane enveloping the room, and she was at its very center.

“You ungrateful brat!  After all I have done for you!”

Padraig snorted, muttering that the honorable ArchDruid had never done anything for anyone other than herself.

“You were never bonded with that barbarian!” she continued. “The gods would never allow some filthy outsider to bond with a druid!”

“It is a true bond, but you wouldn’t know anything about that,” I said, for everyone knew that she had rejected her own chosen.  “Even if it was not, my claim to Davis is just as authentic as yours upon my father.”

I held up my left hand, displaying the faint, silvery scar of the oath mark along my palm.

“No!”

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

“You foul betrayer, you traitor, you whore!” Spittle flew from the ArchDruid’s lips, and I tightened my hold on the wire whips.  Sebrina screamed as swirling red lines corkscrewed down her arms and legs and painted designs on her belly and breasts.

“Don’t,” begged Betrys, tears streaking down her cheeks, worshipful eyes on her ArchDruid. “Please don’t.”

“Please do,” murmured Padraig.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t flay her alive.”

No one answered, not even Father.  Even Betrys’ bleated begging had ceased, as she stared at me with panicked eyes.

You’re a better person than that, Ang.

It was Charlie’s voice in my mind again.

Kill your enemies if you must, but don’t torture them.

I wanted to yank those wire whips so badly.

I wanted to paint her entire body with blood, dripping down in delicate little beads.  I wanted to slice off tiny little strips of skin while Sebrina filled the air with agonized cries.

Everything that was in me wanted her to suffer like Charlie had.

If you choose that path, what then will separate the two of you?

The thought struck me motionless, shoving outside myself and forcing upon me the crystal clarity of the scene:

The slumped bodies of Pollona and Dianthe.

Betrys’ terrified, tearful face.

Padraig’s gloating presence behind me, silently willing me to kill Sebrina and enjoying every moment of her pain and fear.

My father’s face, half-afraid…and half-hopeful.

The ArchDruid, held in midair, tortured, wounded and bloody from my elemental magic – the magic given to me by the Shining Ones – the power given to me to heal the earth of the devastation wrought by humankind before the Rebirth.

Changing the grove was not a task that had been assigned me, but I had allowed it to side-track me from my true mission, the one assigned all druids by the gods.  Like so many of my people, I had let politics and fear distract me from my true purpose.

Our magic was not meant for harm.

It was not meant to make people afraid.

It was not meant to take revenge.

It was for cleansing the water, and clearing the air, and for recharging the whole world with life-giving energy.

My magic was not meant for this.

I took a deep breath, then slowly released it along with the power, gently lowering the ArchDruid to the floor.  Sebrina managed to stay upright in spite of her shaking legs.

“All my mentoring, instruction, and guidance, and this is what I get,” Sebrina rasped. “You are not the druid I raised you to be.”

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

“Be silent, malcontent!” the ArchDruid snapped.

Father crossed the room to stand off to the side, at a point equidistant from her and me.

“Angelina has assaulted me!” she shouted at him, glaring at me with murder in her eyes. “I expect you handle this!”

“Aye, ArchDruid.  As you say,” Father replied, and drew his dagger.

“Liam!” Padraig shouted.  He moved to put his body between us, but Sebrina hit him with a blast of air that sent him flying out the door.  She turned to me with an evil grin and spirit magic glowing in her eyes.

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

“No!” Sebrina exclaimed, her eyes wide.

“By Well, I am no longer bound by air.” He made a second cut across the oath mark.

“I forbid this!”

“By Sacred Tree, I am no longer bound by spirit.”  He made the third cut.  “I break all ties that bind me to you, Sebrina Silvermist.  Before the eyes of the Nature Spirits, the Ancestors, and the Shining Ones, this bond is severed.”

Sebrina choked, then clutched at her stomach.  “You traitor!” she screeched before falling to her hands and knees and vomiting on the floor.

“The apple does not fall far from the tree,” Father said grimly.  He put his arm around my shoulders and guided me out of the ArchDruid’s office, completely unmindful of the blood dripping from his free hand.

Out of everything bad Sebrina had ever done, in my eyes her tyrannical hold on my father – and therefore my family – was the worst.

Now he was free.

I had my father back.