Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Dark Witch

Nora Roberts

  To the power of family, those born, those made

  When shall we three meet again?

  In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

  When the hurlyburly’s done,

  When the battle’s lost and won.



  Winter 1263

  NEAR THE SHADOW OF THE CASTLE, DEEP IN THE GREEN woods, Sorcha led her children through the gloom toward home. The two youngest rode the sturdy pony, with Teagan, barely three, nodding with every plod. Weary, Sorcha thought, after the excitement of Imbolg, the bonfires, and the feasting.

  “Mind your sister, Eamon.”

  At five, Eamon’s minding was a quick poke to wake up his baby sister before he went back to nibbling on the bannocks his mother had baked that morning.

  “Home in your bed soon,” Sorcha crooned when Teagan whined. “Home soon.”

  She’d tarried too long in the clearing, she thought now. And though Imbolg celebrated the first stirrings in the womb of the Earth Mother, night fell too fast and hard in winter.

  A bitter one it had been, crackling with icy winds and blowing snow and ice-tipped rain. The fog had lived all winter, creeping, crawling, curtaining sun and moon. Too often in that wind, in that fog, she’d heard her name called—a beckoning she refused to answer. Too often in that world of white and gray, she’d seen the dark.

  She refused to truck with it.

  Her man had begged her to take the children and stay with his fine while he waged his battles over that endless winter.

  As the wife of the cennfine, every door would open for her. And in her own right, for what and who she was, welcome would always be made.

  But she needed her woods, her cabin, her place. She needed to be apart as much as she needed to breathe.

  She would tend her own, always, her home and her hearth, her craft and her duties. And most of all, the precious children she and Daithi had made. She had no fear of the night.

  She was known as the Dark Witch, and her power was great.

  But just then she felt sorely a woman missing her man, yearning for the warmth of him, the fine, hard body pressed to hers in the cold and lonely dark.

  What did she care for war? For the greed and ambitions of all the petty kings? She only wanted her man home safe and whole.

  When he came home, they would make another baby, and she would feel that life inside her again. She mourned still the life she’d lost on a brutal black night when the first winter wind had blown through her woods like the sound of weeping.

  How many had she healed? How many had she saved? And yet when the blood had poured from her, when that fragile life had flooded away, no magick, no offering, no bargain with the gods had saved it.

  But then she knew, too well, healing others came more easily than healing self. And the gods as fickle as a giddy girl in May.

  “Look! Look!” Brannaugh, her eldest at seven, danced off the hard path, with their big hound on her heels. “The blackthorn’s blooming! It’s a sign.”

  She saw it now, the hint of those creamy white blossoms among the black, tangled branches. Her first bitter thought was while Brighid, the fertility-bringing goddess, blessed the earth, her own womb lay empty inside her.

  Then she watched her girl, her first pride, sharp-eyed, pink-cheeked, spinning through the snow. She’d been blessed, Sorcha reminded herself. Three times blessed.

  “It’s a sign, Ma.” Dark hair flying with every spin, Brannaugh lifted her face to the dimming light. “Of coming spring.”

  “Aye, it’s that. A good sign.” As had been the gloomy day, as the old hag Cailleach couldn’t find firewood without the bright sun. So spring would come early, so the legend went.

  The blackthorn bloomed bright, tempting the flowers to follow.

  She saw the hope in her child’s eyes, as she’d seen it at the bonfire in other eyes, heard it in the voices. And Sorcha searched inside herself for that spark of hope.

  But found only dread.

  He would come again tonight—she could already sense him. Lurking, waiting, plotting. Inside, she thought, inside the cabin behind the bolted door, with her charms laid out to protect her babies. To protect herself.

  She clucked to the pony to quicken his pace, whistled for the dog. “Come along now, Brannaugh, your sister’s all but asleep already.”

  “Da comes home in the spring.”

  Though her heart stayed heavy, Sorcha smiled and took Brannaugh’s hand. “He does that, home by Bealtaine, and we’ll have a great feast.”

  “Can I see him tonight, with you? In the fire?”

  “There’s much to do. The animals need tending before bed.”

  “For a moment?” Brannaugh tipped her face back, her eyes, gray as smoke, pleading. “Just to see him for a moment, then I can dream he’s home again.”

  As she would herself, Sorcha thought, and now her smile came from her heart. “For a moment, m’inion, when the work’s done.”

  “And you take your medicine.”

  Sorcha lifted her brows. “Will I then? Do I look to you as if I’m in need of it?”

  “You’re still pale, Ma.” Brannaugh kept her voice beneath the wind.

  “Just a wee bit tired, and you’re not to worry. Here now, hold on to your sister, Eamon! Alastar smells home, and she’s likely to fall off.”

  “She rides better than Eamon, and me as well.”

  “Aye, well, the horse is her talisman, but she’s near sleeping on his back.”

  The path turned; the pony’s hooves rang on the frozen ground as he trotted toward the shed beside the cabin.

  “Eamon, see to Alastar, an extra scoop of grain tonight. You had your fill, didn’t you?” she said as her boy began to mutter.

  He grinned at her, handsome as a summer morning, and though he could hop down as quick as a rabbit, he held out his arms.

  He’d always been one for a cuddle, Sorcha thought, hugging him as she lifted him down.

  She didn’t have to tell Brannaugh to start her chores. The girl ran the house nearly as well as her mother. Sorcha took Teagan in her arms, murmuring, soothing, as she carried her into the cabin.

  “It’s dreaming time, my darling.”

  “I’m a pony, and I gallop all day.”

  “Oh aye, the prettiest of ponies, and the fastest of all.”

  The fire, down to embers after the hours away, barely held back the cold. As she carried the baby to bed, Sorcha held out a hand to the hearth. The flames leapt up, simmered over the ashes.

  She tucked Teagan into the bunk, smoothed her hair—bright as sunlight like her father’s—and waited until her eyes—deep and dark like her mother’s—closed.

  “Sweet dreams only,” she murmured, touching the charm she’d hung over the beds of her babies. “Safe and sound through all the night. All you are and all you see hold you through dark into light.”

  She kissed the soft cheek, and as she straightened, winced at the pull in her belly. The ache came and went, but came more strongly as the winter held. So she would take her daughter’s advice and make a potion.

  “Brighid, on this your day, help me heal. I have three children who need me. I cannot leave them alone.”

  She left Teagan sleeping, and went to help the older children with the chores.

  When night fell, too fast, too soon, she secured the door before repeating her nighttime ritual with Eamon.

  “I’m not tired, not a bit,” he claimed as his eyes drooped.

  “Oh, I can see that. I see you’re wide awake and raring. Will you fly again tonight, mhic?”

  “I will, aye, high in the sky. Will you teach me more tomorrow? Can I take Roibeard out come morning?”

  “That I will, and that you can. The hawk is yours
, and you see him, you know him, and feel him. So rest now.” She ruffled his bark brown hair, kissed his eyes—wild and blue as his father’s—closed.

  When she came down from the loft, she found Brannaugh already by the fire, with the hound that was hers.

  Glowing, Sorcha thought, with health—thank the goddess—and with the power she didn’t yet fully hold or understand. There was time for that, she prayed there was time yet for that.

  “I made the tea,” Brannaugh told her. “Just as you taught me. You’ll feel better, I think, after you drink it.”

  “Do you tend me now, mo chroi?” Smiling, Sorcha picked up the tea, sniffed it, nodded. “You have the touch, that you do. Healing is a strong gift. With it, you’ll be welcome, and needed, wherever you go.”

  “I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be here with you and Da, and Eamon and Teagan, always.”

  “One day you may look beyond our wood. And there will be a man.”

  Brannaugh snorted. “I don’t want a man. What would I do with a man?”

  “Ah well, that’s a story for another day.” She sat with her girl by the fire, wrapped a wide shawl around them both. And drank her tea. And when Brannaugh touched her hand, she turned hers over, linked fingers.

  “All right then, but for only a moment. You need your bed.”

  “Can I do it? Can I bring the vision?”

  “See what you have, then. Do what you will. See him, Brannaugh, the man you came from. It’s love that brings him.”

  Sorcha watched the smoke swirl, the flames leap and then settle. Good, she thought, impressed. The girl learned so quickly.

  The image tried to form, in the hollows and valleys of the flame. A fire within a fire. Silhouettes, movements, and, for a moment, the murmur of voices from so far away.

  She saw the intensity on her daughter’s face, the light sheen of sweat from the effort. Too much, she thought. Too much for one so young.

  “Here now,” she said quietly. “We’ll do it together.”

  She pushed her power out, merged it with Brannaugh’s.

  A fast roar, a spin of smoke, a dance of sparks. Then clear.

  And he was there, the man they both longed for.

  Sitting at another fire, within a circle of stones. His bright hair braided to fall over the dark cape wrapped around his broad shoulders. The dealg of his rank pinned to it glittered in the light of the flames.

  The brooch she’d forged for him in fire and magick—the hound, the horse, the hawk.

  “He looks weary,” Brannaugh said, and leaned her head against her mother’s arm. “But so handsome. The most handsome of men.”

  “That he is. Handsome, and strong, and brave.” And oh, she longed for him.

  “Can you see when he comes home?”

  “Not all can be seen. Perhaps when he’s closer, I’ll have a sign. But tonight, we see he’s safe and well, and that’s enough.”

  “He thinks of you.” Brannaugh looked over, into her mother’s face. “I can feel it. Can he feel us thinking of him?”

  “He hasn’t the gift, but he has the heart, the love. So perhaps he can. To bed now. I’ll be up soon.”

  “The blackthorn is blooming, and the old hag did not see the sun today. He comes home soon.” Rising, Brannaugh kissed her mother. The dog trotted up the ladder with her.

  Alone, Sorcha watched her love in the fire. And alone, she wept.

  Even as she dried her tears she heard it. The beckoning.

  He would comfort her, he would warm her—such were his seductive lies. He would give her all she could want, and more. She had only to give herself to him.

  “I will never be yours.”

  You will. You are. Come now, and know all the pleasures, all the glory. All the power.

  “You will never have me, or what I hold inside me.”

  Now the image in the fire shifted. And he came into the flames. Cabhan, whose power and purpose were darker than the winter night. Who wanted her—her body, her soul, her magick.

  The sorcerer desired her, for she felt his lust like sweaty hands on her skin. But more, more, she knew, he coveted her gift. His greed for it hung heavy in the air.

  In the flames he smiled, so handsome, so ruthless.

  I will have you, Sorcha the Dark. You and all you are. We are meant. We are the same.

  No, she thought, we are not the same, but as day to night, light to dark, where the only merging comes in shadows.

  So alone you are, and burdened. Your man leaves you a cold bed. Come warm yourself in mine; feel the heat. Make that heat with me. Together, we rule all the world.

  Her spirits sagged, the ache and pull inside her twisted toward pain.

  So she rose, let the warm wind come to blow through her hair. Let the power pour in until she shone with it. And saw, even in the flames, the lust and greed in Cabhan’s face.

  Here is what he wanted, she knew, the glory that rushed through her blood. And this was what he would never have.

  “Know my mind and feel my power, then and now and every hour. You offer me your dark desire, come to me in smoke and fire. Betray my blood, my babes, my man, to rule o’er all, only take your hand. So my answer to thee comes through wind and sea, rise maiden, mother, hag in trinity. As I will, so mote it be.”

  She threw out her arms, released the fury, fully female, whirled in, flung it toward the beat of his heart.

  An instant of pure, wild pleasure erupted inside her when she heard his cry of rage and pain, when she saw that rage and pain burst onto his face against the flames.

  Then the fire was just a fire, simmering low for the night, bringing a bit of warmth against the bitter. Her cabin was just a cabin, quiet and dim. And she was just a woman alone with her children sleeping.

  She slumped down in the chair, wrapping an arm around the tearing in her belly.

  Cabhan was gone, for now. But her fear remained, of him, and that if no potion or prayer healed her body, she would leave her children motherless.


  * * *

  SHE WOKE WITH HER YOUNGEST CURLED WITH HER, FOUND comfort even as she shifted to rise for the day.

  “Ma, Ma, stay.”

  “There now, my sunbeam, I have work. And you should be in your own bed.”

  “The bad man came. He killed my ponies.”

  A fist of panic squeezed Sorcha’s heart. Cabhan touching her children—their bodies, their minds, their souls? It brought her unspeakable fear, unspeakable rage.

  “Just a dream, my baby.” She cuddled Teagan close, rocked and soothed. “Just a dream.”

  But dreams had power and risks.

  “My ponies screamed, and I couldn’t save them. He set them afire, and they screamed. Alastar came and knocked the bad man down. I rode away on Alastar, but I couldn’t save the ponies. I’m afraid of the bad man in the dream.”

  “He won’t hurt you. I’ll never let him hurt you. Only dream ponies.” Eyes tightly closed, she kissed Teagan’s bright, tousled hair, her cheeks. “We’ll dream of more. Green ones, and blue ones.”

  “Green ponies!”

  “Oh aye, green as the hills.” Snuggling, Sorcha lifted a hand, circled her finger, twirled it, twirled it until ponies—blue ones, green ones, red ones, yellow ones—danced in the air above their heads. Listening to her youngest giggle, Sorcha stored up her fears, her anger, closed them in with determination.

  He would never harm her children. She would see him dead, and herself with him, before she allowed it.

  “All the ponies to their oats now. And you come with me then, and we’ll break our fast as well.”

  “Is there honey?”

  “Aye.” The simple wish for a treat made Sorcha smile. “There’ll be honey for good girls.”

  “I’m good!”

  “You are the purest and sweetest of hearts.”

  Sorcha gathered up Teagan, and her baby held tight, whispered in her ear. “The bad man said he would take me first as I’m the youngest and w

  “He’ll never take you, I swear it, on my life.” She eased Teagan back so her daughter could see the truth of it in her eyes. “I swear it to you. And, my darling, weak you’re not, and never will be.”

  So she fed the fire, poured honey on the bread, and made the tea and oats. They’d all need their strength for what she would do that day. What she needed to do.

  Her boy came down from the loft, his hair tousled and tangled from sleep. He rubbed his eyes, sniffed the air like a hound. “I fought the black sorcerer. I didn’t run.”

  Inside her breast Sorcha’s heart kicked to a gallop. “You dreamed. Tell me.”

  “I was at the turn of the river where we keep the boat, and he came, and I knew him for a sorcerer, a black one because his heart is black.”

  “His heart.”

  “I could see in his heart, though he smiled, friendly like, and offered me some honey cake. ‘Here, lad,’ says he, ‘I’ve a fine treat for you.’ But the cake was full of worms and black blood—inside it. I could tell it was poisoned.”

  “You saw inside his heart, and inside the cake, in the dream.”

  “I did, I promise.”

  “I believe you.” So her little man had more than she’d known.

  “I said to him, ‘Eat the cake yourself, for it’s death in your hand.’ But he threw it aside, and the worms crawled out of it and burned to ashes. He thought he would drown me in the river, but I threw rocks at him. Then Roibeard came.”

  “Did you call the hawk in your dream?”

  “I wished for him, and he came, and he flashed out with his talons. The black sorcerer went away, like smoke in the wind. And I waked in my bed.”

  Sorcha drew him close, stroked his hair.

  She’d unleashed her fury at Cabhan, so he came after her children.