Morrigans cross, p.10
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.10
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         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts

  It puzzled him that there were so many different types of cars in this world. Different sizes and shapes and colors. If one was efficient and comfortable, why did they need so many other kinds?

  There was a long bench in the area as well, and all manner of fascinating-looking tools hanging on the wall or layered in the drawers of a large red chest. He spent some time studying them, and the stack of timber that had been planed smooth and cut into long lengths.

  Tools, he thought, wood, machines, but no life. No grooms, no horses, no cats slinking about hunting mice. No litter of wriggling pups for Nola to play with. He closed and locked the door behind him again, moved down the outside length of the stable.

  He wandered into the tack room, comforted somewhat by the scents of leather and oil. It was well organized, he saw, just as the stall for the car had been. He ran his hands over a saddle, crouched to examine it, and found it not so different from the one he’d used.

  He toyed with reins and bridles, and for a moment missed his mare as he might have missed a lover.

  He passed through a door. The stone floor had a slight slope, with two stalls on one side, one on the other. Fewer than there had been, but larger, he noted. The wood was smooth and dark. He could smell hay and grain, and…

  He moved, quickly now, down the stone floor.

  A coal-black stallion stood in the last of three stalls. It gave Hoyt’s heart a hard and happy leap to see it. There were still horses after all—and this one, he noted, was magnificent.

  It pawed the ground, laid back its ears when Hoyt opened the stall door. But he held up both hands, began to croon softly in Irish.

  In response, the horse kicked the rear of the stall and blew out a warning.

  “That’s all right then, that’s fine. Who could blame you for being careful with a stranger? But I’m just here to admire you, to take in your great handsome self, is all I’m about. Here, have a sniff why don’t you? See what you think. Ah, it’s a sniff I said, not a nip.” With a chuckle, Hoyt drew back his hand a fraction as the horse bared his teeth.

  He continued to speak softly and stand very still with his hand out while the horse made a show of snorting and pawing. Deciding bribery was the best tack, Hoyt conjured an apple.

  When he saw the interest in the horse’s eye, he lifted it, took a healthy bite himself. “Delicious. Would you be wanting some?”

  Now the horse stepped forward, sniffed, snorted, then nipped the apple from Hoyt’s palm. As he chomped it, he graciously allowed himself to be stroked.

  “I left a horse behind. A fine horse I’d had for eight years. I called her Aster, for she had a star shape right here.” He stroked two fingers down the stallion’s head. “I miss her. I miss it all. For all the wonders of this world, it’s hard to be away from what you know.”

  At length he stepped out of the stall, closed the door behind him. The rain had stopped so he could hear the murmur of the stream, and the plop of rain falling from leaf to ground.

  Were there still faeries in the woods? he wondered. Playing and plotting and watching the foibles of man? He was too tired in his mind to search for them. Too tired in his heart to take the lonely walk to where he knew his family must be buried.

  He went back to the house, retrieved his case and walked up all the winding steps to the topmost tower.

  There was a heavy door barring his way, one that was deeply scribed with symbols and words of magic. Hoyt ran his fingers over the carving, felt the hum and the heat. Whoever had done this had some power.

  Well, he wouldn’t be shut out of his own workroom. He set to work to break the locking spell, and used his own sense of insult and anger to heat it.

  This was his home. And never in his life had a door here been locked to him.

  “Open locks,” he commanded. “It is my right to enter this place. It is my will that breaks this spell.”

  The door flew open on a blast of wind. Hoyt took himself and his resentment inside, letting the door slam shut behind him.

  The room was empty but for dust and spiderwebs. Cold, too, he thought. Cold and stale and unused. Once it had carried the scent of his herbs and candlewax, the burn of his own power.

  He would have this back at least, as it had been it would be again. There was work to do, and this was where he intended to do it.

  So he cleaned the hearth and lit the fire. He dragged up from below whatever suited him—a chair, tables. There was no electricity here, and that pleased him. He’d make his own light.

  He set out candles, touched their wicks to set them to burn. By their light he arranged his tools and supplies.

  Settled in his heart, in his mind, for the first time in days, he stretched out on the floor in front of the fire, rolled up his cloak to pillow his head and slept.

  And dreamed.

  He stood with Morrigan on a high hill. The ground sheered down in steep drops, slicing rolls with shadowy chasms all haunted by the distant blur of dark mountains. The grass was coarse and pocked with rock. Some rose up like spears, others jutted out in gray layers, flat as giant tables. The ground dipped up and down, up again to the mountains where the mists fell into pockets.

  He could hear hisses in the mists, the panting breath of something older than time. There was an anger to this place. A wild violence waiting to happen.

  But now, nothing stirred on the land as far as his eye could see.

  “This is your battleground,” she told him. “Your last stand. There will be others before you come here. But this is where you will draw her, and face her with all the worlds in the balance on that day.”

  “What is this place?”

  “This is the Valley of Silence, in the Mountains of Mist, in the World of Geall. Blood will spill here, demon and human. What grows after will be determined by what you, and those with you do. But you must not stand upon this land until the battle.”

  “How will I come here again?”

  “You will be shown.”

  “We are only four.”

  “More are coming. Sleep now, for when you wake, you must act.”

  While he slept the mists parted. He saw there was a maiden standing on that same high ground. She was slim and young with brown hair in a tumble down her back, loose as suited a maiden. She wore a gown of deep mourning, and her eyes showed the ravages of weeping.

  But they were dry now, and fixed upon that desolate land, as his had been. The goddess spoke to her, but the words were not for him.

  Her name was Moira, and her land was Geall. Her land and her heart and her duty. That land had been at peace since the gods had made it, and those of her blood had guarded that peace. Now, she knew, peace would be broken, just as her heart was broken.

  She had buried her mother that morning.

  “They slaughtered her like a spring lamb.”

  “I know your grief, child.”

  Her bruised eyes stared hard through the rain. “Do the gods grieve, my lady?”

  “I know your anger.”

  “She harmed no one in her life. What manner of death is that for one who was so good, so kind?” Moira’s hands bunched at her sides. “You cannot know my grief or my anger.”

  “Others will die even a worse death. Will you stand and do nothing?”

  “What can I do? How do we defend against such creatures? Will you give me more power?” Moira held out her hands, hands that had never felt so small and empty. “More wisdom and cunning? What I have isn’t enough.”

  “You’ve been given all you need. Use it, hone it. There are others, and they wait for you. You must leave now, today.”

  “Leave?” Stunned, Moira turned to face the goddess. “My people have lost their queen. How can I leave them, and how could you ask it of me? The test must be taken; the gods themselves deemed this so. If I’m not to be the one to stand in my mother’s stead, take sword and crown, I still must bide here, to help the one who does.”

  “You help by going, and this the gods deem so. This is your charge,
Moira of Geall. To travel from this world so you might save it.”

  “You would have me leave my home, my people, and on such a day? The flowers have not yet faded on my mother’s grave.”

  “Would your mother wish you to stand and weep for her and watch your people die?”

  “No.”

  “You must go, you and the one you trust most. Travel to the Dance of the Gods. There I will give you a key, and it will take you where you need to go. Find the others, form your army. And when you come here, to this land, on Samhain, you’ll fight.”

  Fight, she thought. She had never been called to fight, had only known peace. “My lady, am I not needed here?”

  “You will be. I tell you to go now where you’re needed now. If you stay, you’re lost. And your land is lost, as the worlds are. This was destined for you since before your birth. It is why you are.

  “Go immediately. Make haste. They only wait for sunset.”

  Her mother’s grave was here, Moira thought in despair. Her life was here, and all she knew. “I’m in mourning. A few days more, Mother, I beg you.”

  “Stay even one day longer, and this is what befalls your people, your land.”

  Morrigan waved an arm, parting the mists. Beyond them it was black night with only the silver ripple of light from the cold moon. Screams ripped through the air. Then there was smoke, and the shimmering orange glow of fires.

  Moira saw the village overlooked by her own home. The shops and cottages were burning, and those screams were the screams of her friends, her neighbors. Men and women ripped to pieces, children being fed on by those horrible things that had taken her mother.

  She watched her own uncle fight, slashing with his sword while blood stained his face and hands. But they leaped on him from above, from below, those creatures with fangs and eyes of feral red. They fell on him with howls that froze her bones. And while the blood washed the ground, a woman of great beauty glided over it. She wore red, a silk gown tightly laced at the bodice and bedecked with jewels. Her hair was uncovered and spilled gold as sunlight over her white shoulders.

  In her arms was a babe still swaddled.

  While the slaughter raged around her, the thing of great beauty bared fangs, and sank them into the babe’s throat.

  “No!”

  “Hold your grief and your anger here, and this will come.” The cold anger in Morrigan’s voice pierced through Moira’s terror. “All you know destroyed, ravaged, devoured.”

  “What are these demons? What hell loosed them on us?”

  “Learn. Take what you have, what you are, and seek your destiny. The battle will come. Arm yourself.”

  She woke beside her mother’s grave, shaking from the horrors she’d seen. Her heart was as heavy as the stones used to make her mother’s cairn.

  “I couldn’t save you. How can I save anyone? How can I stop this thing from coming here?”

  To leave all she’d ever known, all she’d ever loved. Easy for gods to speak of destiny, she thought as she forced herself to her feet. She looked over the graves to the quiet green hills, the blue ribbon of the river. The sun was high and bright, sparkling over her world. She heard the song of a lark, and the distant lowing of cattle.

  The gods had smiled on this land for hundreds of years. Now there was a price to be paid, of war and death and blood. And her duty to pay it.

  “I’ll miss you, every day,” she said aloud, then looked over to her father’s grave. “But now you’re together. I’ll do what needs to be done, to protect Geall. Because I’m all that’s left of you. I swear it here, on this holy ground before those who made me. I’ll go to strangers in a strange world, and give my life if my life is asked. It’s all I can give you now.”

  She picked up the flowers she’d brought with her, and laid some on each grave. “Help me do this thing,” she pleaded, then walked away.

  He was waiting for her on the stone wall. He had his own grief, she knew, but had given her the time she’d needed alone. He was the one she trusted most. The son of her mother’s brother—the uncle she’d seen cut down in the vision.

  He jumped lightly to his feet when she approached, and simply held open his arms. Going into them, she rested her head on his chest. “Larkin.”

  “We’ll hunt them. We’ll find them and kill them. Whatever they are.”

  “I know what they are, and we will find them, kill them. But not here. Not now.” She drew back. “Morrigan came to me, and told me what must be done.”

  “Morrigan?”

  At the suspicion on his face she was able to smile a little. “I’ll never understand how someone with your skills doubts the gods.” She lifted a hand to his cheek. “But will you trust me?”

  He framed her face, kissed her forehead. “You know I will.”

  As she told him what she’d been told, his face changed again. He sat on the ground, shoving a hand through his mane of tawny hair. She’d envied his hair as long as she’d lived, mourning the fact that she’d been given ordinary brown. His eyes were tawny as well, gilded she’d always thought, while hers were gray as rain.

  He’d been gifted with more height, as well as other things she envied.

  When she was finished, she drew a long breath. “Will you go with me?”

  “I’d hardly let you go alone.” His hand closed over hers, firm and steady. “Moira, how can you be sure this vision wasn’t simply your heartbreak?”

  “I know. I can only tell you that I know what I saw was real. But if it’s nothing more than grief, we’ll only have wasted the time it takes to go to the Dance. Larkin, I need to try.”

  “Then we’ll try.”

  “We tell no one.”

  “Moira—”

  “Listen to me.” Urgently, she gripped his wrists. “Your father would do his best to stop us. Or to come with us if he believed me. This isn’t the way, it isn’t my charge. One, the goddess told me. I was to take only one, the one I trusted most. It can only be you. We’ll write it down for him. While we’re gone, he’ll rule Geall, and protect it.”

  “You’ll take the sword—” Larkin began.

  “No. The sword isn’t to leave here. That was a sacred oath, and I won’t be the one to break it. The sword remains until I return. I don’t take my place until I lift it, I don’t lift it until I’ve earned my place. There are other swords. Arm yourself, she said, so see that you do. Meet me in an hour. Tell no one.”

  She squeezed his hands now. “Swear to me on the blood we share. On the loss we share.”

  How could he deny her when tears were still on her cheeks? “I swear it to you. I’ll tell no one.” He gave her arms a quick rub in comfort. “We’ll be back by supper, I wager, in any case.”

  She hurried home, across the field and up the hill to the castle where her blood had reigned over the land since it was created. Those she passed bowed their heads to her to show their sympathy, and she saw tears glimmer.

  And she knew when they dried, many would look to her for guidance, for answers. Many would wonder how she would rule.

  So did she.

  She crossed the great hall. There was no laughter here now, no music. Gathering the burdensome skirts of her gown, she climbed the steps to her chamber.

  There were women nearby, sewing, tending to children, speaking in low voices so it sounded like doves cooing.

  Moira went quietly by, and slipped into her room. She exchanged her gown for riding clothes, laced on her boots. It felt wrong to put off her mourning garb so quickly, so easily, but she would travel more swiftly in the tunic and tewes. She bound her hair back in a braid and began to pack.

  She would need little but what was on her back, she decided. She would think of this as a hunting trip—there, at least, she had some skill. And so she got out her quiver and her bow, a short sword and lay them on the bed while she sat to write a message to her uncle.

  How did you tell a man who’d stood in as father for so many years that you were taking his son into a battle you didn
’t understand, to fight what was impossible to comprehend, in the company of men you didn’t know?

  The will of the gods, she thought, her mouth tight as she wrote. She wasn’t certain if she followed that or simply her own rage. But go she would.

  I must do this thing, she continued in a careful hand. I pray you will forgive me for it, and know that I go only for the sake of Geall. I ask that if I don’t return by Samhain, you lift the sword and rule in my place. Know that I go for you, for Geall, and that I swear by my mother’s blood, I will fight to the death to defend and protect what I love.

  Now I leave what I love in your hands.

  She folded the letter, heated the wax and sealed it.

  She put on the sword, shouldered her quiver and bow. One of the women bustled out as she left her chambers.

  “My lady!”

  “I wish to ride out alone.” Her voice was so sharp, her manner so curt that there was nothing but a gasp behind her as she strode away.

  Her belly shook, but she didn’t pause. When she reached the stables, she waved the boy away and saddled her mount herself. She looked down at him, his soft, young face bursting with freckles.

  “When the sun sets, you’re to stay inside. This night and every night until I tell you. Do you heed me?”

  “Aye, my lady.”

  She wheeled her horse, kicked her heels lightly at its flanks, riding off at a gallop.

  She would not look back, Moria thought. She would not look back at home, but forward.

  Larkin was waiting for her, sitting loose in the saddle while his horse cropped grass.

  “I’m sorry, it took longer.”

  “Women always take longer.”

  “I’m asking so much of you. What if we never get back?”

  He clicked to his horse, walking it beside hers. “Since I don’t believe we’re going anywhere, I’m not worried.” He sent her an easy smile. “I’m just indulging you.”

  “I’d feel nothing but relief if this is nothing more than that.” But once again she urged her horse to a gallop. Whatever was waiting, she wanted to meet it quickly.

  He matched her pace as they rode, as they had so often, over the hills that sparkled in the sunlight. Buttercups dotted the fields with yellow, giving swarms of butterflies a reason to dance in the air. She watched a hawk circle overhead, and some of the heaviness lifted from her.

  Her mother had loved to watch the hawk. She’d said it was Moira’s father, there to look down on them while he flew free. Now she prayed her mother flew free as well.

  The hawk circled over the ring of stones, and raised its cry.

  Nerves made her queasy so she swallowed hard.

  “Well, we made it this far.” Larkin shook back his hair. “What do you suggest?”

  “Are you cold? Do you feel the cold?”

  “No. It’s warm. The sun’s strong today.”

  “Something’s watching.” She shivered even as she dismounted. “Something cold.”

  “There’s nothing here but us.” But when he jumped down from his horse, Larkin laid a hand on the hilt of his sword.

  “It sees.” There were voices in her head, whispers and murmurs. As if in a trance, she took her bag from the saddle. “Take what you need. Come with me.”

  “You’re acting considerably strange, Moira.” With a sigh, Larkin took his own bag, tossing it over his shoulder as he caught up with her.

  “She can’t enter here. Never. No matter what her power, she can never enter this circle, never touch these stones. If she tries she’ll burn. She knows, she hates.”

  “Moira…your eyes.”

  She turned them on him. They were nearly black, and they were depthless. And when she opened her hand, there was a wand of crystal in it. “You are bound, as I am bound, to do this thing. You are my blood.” She took her short sword, cut her
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