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 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.

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.

“It Must Be Your Love” by Bella Andre

It Must Be Your Love (The Sullivans, #11)It Must Be Your Love by Bella Andre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much enjoyed reading this book (Kindle edition). Romance novels are my not-so-guilty pleasure, and although I prefer historical romance (re: swords and kilts), I’ll dive into the occasional modern romance.

Most modern romance novels seem to follow this formula: boy meets girl, they have hot nasty sex, something drives them apart even as they are realizing they are in love (after a one-night stand, no less), they go through some struggles and end up together. This one is a little different, and that difference makes it stand out.

First, there is mention of a previous sexual encounter and its fabulousness, but no real dirty details. Instead, Andre does something unusual, in having her characters become friends. True, they’re making out hot and heavy in some really erotic foreplay, but that’s all it is — foreplay. It takes a while to get to the main event, and all the while the reader is never quite sure if it will actually happen.

Second, the main characters, Mia and Ford, did have the initial passionate meeting, but it’s part of the back story. What I really enjoyed is that the female protagonist, Mia, has a successful career and life, as well as friendships and a good family relationship — all of which is completely independent of Ford, the male protagonist. I really like that. One tires of run-of-the-mill working girls who are rescued from their mundane lives by fabulously wealthy guys. Ford is fabulously wealthy, but even after they acknowledge their feelings for one another, there is no mention of Mia giving up her career just because he can support her. There is also no guarantee that they will end up together.

So if you’re in the mood for some heavy romance, a little angst, and a lot of spicy foreplay and sex with a strong female protagonist, this is definitely the book for you.

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