Morrigans cross, p.11
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.11

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  palm, then reached for his.

  “Well, bollocks.” But he held out his hand, let her slice across the palm.

  She sheathed the knife, gripped his bloody hand with hers. “Blood is life, and blood is death,” she said. “And here it opens the way.”

  With his hand in hers, she stepped into the circle.

  “Worlds wait,” she began, chanting the words that swirled in her head. “Time flows. Gods watch. Speak the words with me.”

  Her hand throbbed in his as they repeated the words.

  The wind swirled, whipping the long grass, snapping their cloaks. Instinctively, Larkin put his free arm around her, folding her into him as he tried to use his body as a shield. Light burst, blinding them.

  She gripped his hand, and felt the world spin.

  Then the dark. Damp grass, misty air.

  They still stood within the circle, on that same rise. But not the same, she realized. The forest beyond wasn’t quite the same.

  “The horses are gone.”

  She shook her head. “No. We are.”

  He looked up. He could see the moon swimming behind the clouds. The dying wind was cold enough to reach his bones. “It’s night. It was barely midday and now it’s night. Where the bloody hell are we?”

  “Where we’re meant to be, that’s all I know. We need to find the others.”

  He was baffled, and unnerved. And could admit that he hadn’t thought beyond the moment. That would stop now, for now he had only one charge. To protect his cousin.

  “What we’re going to do is look for shelter and wait for sunrise.” He tossed her his pack, then started to stride out of the circle. As he walked, he changed.

  The shape of his body, the sinew, the bone. In place of skin a pelt, tawny as his hair, in place of hair a mane. Now a stallion stood where the man had been.

  “Well, I suppose that would be quicker.” Ignoring the knots in her belly, Moira mounted. “We’ll ride the way that would be toward home. I think that makes the most sense—if any of this does. Best not gallop, in case that way is different from what we know.”

  He set off in a trot, while she scanned the trees and the moonstruck hills. So much the same, she thought, but with subtle differences.

  There was a great oak where none had been before, and the murmur of a spring in the wrong direction. Nor was the road the same. She nudged Larkin off it, in the direction where home would be if this were her world.

  They moved into the trees, picking their way now carefully, following instinct and a rough path.

  He stopped, lifted his head as if scenting the air. His body shifted under her as he turned. She felt muscles bunch.

  “What is it? What do you—”

  He flew, risking low branches, hidden rocks as he broke into a strong gallop. Knowing only he’d sensed danger, she lowered her body, clung to his mane. But it came like lightning, flying out of the trees as if it had wings. She had time to shout, time to reach for her sword before Larkin reared up, striking the thing with both hooves.

  It screamed, tumbled off into the dark.

  She would have urged him back into a gallop, but he was already shaking her off, already turning back into a man. They stood back-to-back now, swords drawn.

  “The circle,” she whispered. “If we can get back to the circle.”

  He shook his head. “They’ve cut us off,” he replied. “We’re surrounded.”

  They came slowly now, slinking out of the shadows. Five, no six, Moira saw as her blood chilled. Their fangs gleamed in the shivering moonlight.

  “Stay close,” Larkin told her. “Don’t let them draw you away from me.”

  One of the things laughed, a sound that was horribly human. “You’ve come a long way to die,” it said.

  And leaped.

  Chapter 8

  Too restless to sleep, Glenna wandered the house. It was big enough, she supposed, to accommodate an army—certainly large enough to keep four relative strangers comfortable and afford some privacy. There were high ceilings—gorgeous with ornate plaster work—and steps that spiraled or curved to more rooms. Some of those rooms were small as cells, others spacious and airy.

  Chandeliers were iron, the style intricate and artful and leaning toward the Gothic. They suited the house more than anything contemporary, or even the elegance of crystal.

  Intrigued by the look, she went back for a camera. While she wandered, she paused when the mood struck, framed in a portion of ceiling, or a light. She spent thirty minutes alone on the dragons carved into the black marble of the fireplace in the main parlor.

  Wizards, vampires, warriors. Marble dragons and ancient houses secluded in deep woods. Plenty of fodder for her art, she thought. She could very well make up the hit to her income when she got back to New York.

  Might as well think positive.

  Cian must have spent a great deal of time and money refurbishing, modernizing, decorating, she decided. But then, he had plenty of both. Rich colors, rich fabrics, gleaming antiques gave the house a sense of luxury and style. And yes, she thought, the place just sat here, year after year, empty and echoing.

  A pity, really. A waste of beauty and history. She deplored waste.

  Still, it was lucky he had it. Its location, its size, and she supposed, its history made it the perfect base.

  She found the library and nodded in approval. It boasted three staggered tiers of books, towering to the domed ceiling where another dragon—stained glass this time—breathed fire and light.

  There were candlestands taller than a man, and lamps with jeweled shades. She didn’t doubt the lake-sized Oriental rugs were the genuine articles and possibly hundreds of years old.

  Not only a good base, she mused, but an extremely comfortable one. With its generous library table, deep chairs and enormous fireplace, she deemed this the perfect war room.

  She indulged herself by lighting the fire and the lamps to dispel the gloom of the gray day. From her own supply, she gathered crystals, books, candles, arranging them throughout the room.

  Though she wished for flowers, it was a start. But more was needed. Life didn’t run on style, on luck, or on magic alone.

  “What’re you up to, Red?”

  She turned, saw King filling the doorway. “I guess we could call it nesting.”

  “Hell of a nest.”

  “I was thinking the same. And I’m glad you’re here. You’re just the man I need.”

  “You and every other woman. What’ve you got in mind?”

  “Practicalities. You’ve been here before, right?”

  “Yeah, a couple times.”

  “Where are the weapons?” When his eyebrows shot up, she spread her arms. “Those pesky items required for fighting wars—or so I’ve heard, since this would be my first war. I know I’d feel better if I had a couple of howitzers handy.”

  “Don’t think the boss runs to those.”

  “What does he run to?”

  He considered. “What you got going in here?”

  She glanced toward the crystals. “Just some things I’ve set around for protection, courage, creativity and so on. This struck me as a good place to strategize. A war room. What?” she said when his lips curved in a wide grin.

  “Guess you’re on to something.” He walked over to a wall of books, ran his big fingers along the carved trim.

  “You’re not going to tell me there’s a…secret panel,” she finished with a delighted laugh when the wall swiveled out.

  “Place is full of ’em.” King pushed the wall completely around before she could peek through the gap. “I don’t know as he’d want you poking around in the passages. But you said weapons.” He gestured. “You got weapons.”

  Swords, axes, maces, daggers, scythes. Every manner of blade hung gleaming on the exposed wall. There were crossbows, long bows, even what she thought was a trident.

  “That’s just a little bit scary,” she declared, but stepped forward to take down a small dagger.

>   “Little advice,” King began. “You use something like that, whatever’s coming for you is going to have to get real close before it does you any good.”

  “Good point.” She replaced the dagger, took down a sword. “Wow. Heavy.” She replaced it, took down what she thought would be termed a foil. “Better.”

  “You got any idea how to use that?”

  “Hack, hack, hack, jab, jab?” She gave it a testing swing, found herself surprised she liked the feel of it. “Okay, no. Not a clue. Someone will have to teach me.”

  “Do you think you could slice through flesh with that?” Cian spoke as he came in the room. “Strike bone, spill blood?”

  “I don’t know.” She lowered the sword. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to find out. I saw what she was, what she did, what she has with her. I’m not going into this with only potions and spells. And I’m sure as hell not going to stand there and go eek if she tries to bite me.”

  “You can wound them with that, slow them down. But you won’t kill, you won’t stop them unless you use it to cut off the head.”

  With a grimace she studied the slender blade, then resigned, put it back, took down the heavier sword.

  “Swinging that around takes a great deal of strength.”

  “Then I’ll get strong, strong enough.”

  “Muscle’s not the only kind of strength you’ll need.”

  She kept her gaze level. “I’ll get strong enough. You know how to use this. You and Hoyt, and you,” she said to King. “If you think I’m going to sit back, stirring a cauldron when it comes time to fight, think again. I wasn’t brought here so I could have men protect me. I wasn’t given this gift to be a coward.”

  “Me,” King said with that wide grin in place again, “I like a woman with grit.”

  Gripping the hilt with both hands, she sliced the air with the blade. “So. When’s my first lesson?”

  Hoyt descended the stairs. He tried not to mourn what was changed, what was gone. He would get back, back to his true home, back to his family, and his life.

  He would see the torches flaming on the walls again, smell his mother’s roses in the garden. And he would walk the cliffs beyond his own cottage in Chiarrai again, and know the world was free of the vermin that sought to destroy it.

  He’d needed rest, that was all. Rest and solitude in a place he knew and understood. Now he would work, and he would plan. He was done with this sensation of being swept away into what he couldn’t understand.

  Darkness had fallen, and those lights—those strange, harsh lights that came from electricity rather than fire—illuminated the house.

  It irritated him that he found no one about, and could scent no supper cooking from the direction of the kitchen. It was time to be busy, and time the rest understood it was necessary to take the next steps.

  A sound made him pause, then hiss out a breath. He followed the sound of clashing steel at a run. Then he swung toward where a doorway had been and cursed when he found sheer wall. He sprinted around it, and burst into the library where he saw his brother slashing a sword toward Glenna.

  He didn’t think; didn’t hesitate. He punched his power toward Cian, and sent his sword spinning away to clatter on the floor. With her forward motion unblocked, Glenna sliced Cian’s shoulder.

  “Well, shit.” Cian flicked a hand at the sword even as Glenna pulled it back in horror.

  “Oh God! Oh my God. Is it bad? How bad?” She dropped her sword to rush forward.

  “Back!” With another sweep of power, Hoyt had Glenna tumbling back and landing on her ass. “You want blood?” Hoyt plucked up Glenna’s discarded sword. “Come then, get mine.”

  King grabbed a sword from the wall, slapped the blade against Hoyt’s. “Back off, magic boy. Now.”

  “Don’t interfere,” Cian said to King. “Step away.” Slowly, Cian picked up his own sword, met Hoyt’s eyes. “You tempt me.”

  “Stop it! Stop it this minute. What the hell’s wrong with you?” Regardless of the blades, Glenna pushed between the brothers. “I’ve stabbed him, for God’s sake. Let me see.”

  “He attacked you.”

  “He did not. He was giving me a lesson.”

  “It’s nothing.” With his gaze still burning into Hoyt’s, Cian nudged Glenna aside. “Shirt’s ruined, and it’s the second I’ve trashed on your account. If I’d wanted her blood, I wouldn’t take it with a sword, waste it. But for yours, I could make an exception.”

  Glenna’s breath wanted to heave, the words wanted to babble. But if she knew anything about men, she knew it would take only a flick of a finger to have these two spilling each other’s blood.

  Instead she spoke sharply—annoyed female to foolish boys. “It was a mistake, an accident on all sides. I appreciate you coming to the rescue,” she said to Hoyt. “But I didn’t, and don’t need the white horse. And you—” She jabbed a finger at Cian. “You know very well what it must have looked like to him, so take it down a little. And you.” She rounded on King. “You can just stop standing over there adding to it.”

  “Hey! All I did was—”

  “Add more trouble,” she interrupted. “Now go, get some bandages.”

  “I don’t need them.” Cian walked back to replace his sword. “I heal quickly, which is something you need to bear in mind.” He held out a hand for King’s sword. The glance Cian gave him might have been affectionate, Glenna thought. Or proud. “Unlike our irritated witch, I appreciate the gesture.”

  “No big.” King handed Cian the sword, then sent Glenna a kind of sheepish shrug.

  Unarmed now, Cian turned back to his brother. “You couldn’t beat me with a sword when I was human. You damn well couldn’t take me now.”

  Glenna put a hand on Hoyt’s arm, felt the muscles quiver. “Put it down,” she said quietly. “This needs to stop.” She ran her hand down his arm to his wrist, then took the sword.

  “The blade needs cleaning,” Cian commented.

  “I’ll take care of it.” King stepped away from the wall. “I’ll toss something together for dinner while I’m at it. Got my appetite worked up.”

  Even after he walked out, Glenna thought there was so much testosterone in the room she couldn’t have hacked through it with one of Cian’s battle-axes.

  “Can we move on?” she said briskly. “I thought we could use the library for our war room. And considering the weapons in here, and the books on magic, warfare, vampires and demons, it seems appropriate. I’ve got some ideas—”

  “I bet you do,” Cian mumbled.

  “The first…” She moved to the table, picked up her crystal ball.

  “Did you learn nothing the first time?” Hoyt demanded.

  “I don’t want to look for her. We know where she is. Or was.” She wanted to change the mood. If there had to be tension, she thought, at least they could use it constructively.

  “Others are coming, that’s what we keep being told. There will be others. I think it’s time we find some of them.”

  He’d planned to do exactly that, but could hardly say so now without looking foolish. “Put that down. It’s too soon to use it after the last time.”

  “I’ve cleansed and recharged it.”

  “Regardless.” He turned to the fire. “We’ll do this my way.”

  “A familiar refrain.” Cian stepped over to a cabinet, took out a heavy decanter. “Have at it then, the pair of you. I’m having a brandy. Elsewhere.”

  “Please stay.” Glenna offered a smile, and there was both apology and cajolery in it. “If we find someone, you should be here to see. We need to decide what to do. All of us need to decide. In fact, I should go get King, so the four of us can do this.”

  Hoyt ignored them, but found it wasn’t quite as simple to ignore the little prick that might have been jealousy. Teaching her swordplay and her fretting over the slightest scratch.

  He spread his hands and began to focus on the fire, using his annoyance to mix the heat.

  “A n
ice thought.” Cian nodded toward Hoyt. “But it seems he’s already started.”

  “Well, for—All right then, all right. But we should cast a circle.”

  “I don’t need one for this. Witches are forever casting circles, spinning rhymes. That’s why true sorcery eludes them.”

  When Glenna’s mouth dropped open, Cian grinned at her, added a wink. “Always been full of himself. Brandy?”

  “No.” Glenna set down her ball, folded her arms. “Thank you.”

  The fire snapped, rose higher and began to eat greedily at the logs.

  He used his own tongue, the language of his birth and blood to draw the fire into a dance. Some part of him knew he was showing off, drawing out the moment and the drama.

  With a billow of smoke, a hiss of flame, the images began to form in the flames. Shadows and movement, shapes and silhouettes. Now he forgot all but the magic and the purpose, all but the need and the power.

  He felt Glenna move closer—in body and in mind. In magic.

  In the flames, the shapes and silhouettes became.

  A woman on horseback, her hair in a long braid down her back, a quiver of arrows over her shoulder. The horse was gold and sleek, and moved at a powerful, even reckless gallop through the dark forest. There was fear on the woman’s face, and a steely determination along with it as she rode low, one hand clutched in the flying mane.

  The man that wasn’t a man leaped out of the forest and was struck away. More took shape, sliding out of the dark, moving to surround.

  The horse quivered, and in a sudden shimmer of light was a man, tall and lean and young. He and the woman stood back-to-back, blades drawn. And the vampires came for them.

  “It’s the road leading to the Dance.” Cian sprang toward the weapons, grabbed a sword and a two-headed ax. “Go in with King,” he ordered Glenna as he raced for the window. “Stay here. Let no one in. No one and nothing.”


  He threw up the window and seemed…seemed to fly out of it.


  But he was already grabbing a sword, a dagger. “Do as he says.”

  He was out the window himself, nearly as quickly as his brother. Glenna didn’t hesitate. She followed.

  He made for the stables, throwing his power ahead of him to open the doors. When the stallion charged out, Hoyt held up his hands to stop him. It was no time for niceties.

  “Go back,” he shouted at Glenna.

  “I’m going with you. Don’t waste time arguing. I’m in this, too.” When he grabbed a handful of mane and sprang onto the horse’s back, she tossed back her head. “I’ll follow on foot.”

  He cursed her, but held down his hand for her to grip. The horse reared as King charged the stables. “What the hell’s going on?”

  “Trouble,” Glenna shouted back. “On the road to the Dance.” When the horse reared again, she wrapped her arms tight around Hoyt. “Go!”

  In the clearing, Moira fought, but no longer for her life. There were too many, and they were too strong. She believed she would die here. She fought for time, each precious moment of breath.

  There was no room or time for her bow, but she had her short sword. She could hurt them, did hurt them. If her blade pierced flesh, they shrieked, and some fell back. But they rose again and came again.

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