Morrigans cross, p.12
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.12

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  She couldn’t count them, no longer knew how many Larkin battled. But she knew if she fell, they would have him. So she fought to stand, fought just to hold on.

  Two came at her, and with her breath sobbing out she hacked at one. His blood gushed out in a horrible scream as those red eyes rolled back to white. To her horror one of his fellows fell on him and began to drink. But still another got past her guard and sent her flying. It pounced on her like a mad dog with greedy fangs and red eyes.

  She heard Larkin shout her name, heard the terror in it as she struggled. Those fangs grazed her throat, and the burn was beyond belief.

  Something came out of the night, some dark warrior with sword and ax. What was on her was hurled away. Her dazed eyes watched him cleave the ax down, behead the thing. It screamed and flashed, and turned to dust.

  “Take their head,” the warrior shouted to Larkin, then turned burning blue eyes on her. “Use your arrows. Wood through the heart.”

  Then his sword began to sing and slice.

  She gained her feet, yanked an arrow out of her quiver. Tried to steady her blood-slicked hand to notch it on the bow. Rider coming, she thought dimly when she heard the thunder of hoofbeats.

  Another came for her, a girl younger than herself. Moira shifted, but there was no time to shoot. The girl leaped, and the arrow impaled her. There was nothing left but dust.

  The horseman jumped down, sword already swinging.

  They would not die, Moira thought as sweat dripped into her eyes. They would not die tonight. She notched an arrow, let it fly.

  The three men had formed a triangle, and were beating the things back. One slithered through, crouched to charge the horse where a woman sat watching the battle. Moira scrambled forward, trying to find a clear shot, but could only call out a warning.

  The second warrior spun around, sword raised as he prepared to attack. But the woman reared back the horse, so its hooves flashed out to strike the thing down.

  When the sword sliced through its neck, there was nothing left but blood and dust.

  In the silence, Moira sank to her knees, fighting for breath and against a terrible sickness. Larkin dropped down beside her, running his hands over her body, her face. “You’re hurt. You’re bleeding.”

  “Not bad. Not bad.” Her first battle, she thought. And she was alive. “You?”

  “Nicks, scratches. Can you get up? I’ll carry you.”

  “I can get up, yes, and no, you won’t carry me.” Still kneeling, she looked up at the man who’d come out of the dark. “You saved my life. Thank you. I think we’ve come to find you, but I’m grateful you found us instead. I’m Moira, and we’ve come through the Dance from Geall.”

  He simply looked at her for what seemed like the longest moment. “We need to get back, and inside. It isn’t safe here.”

  “Larkin is my name.” He held out a hand. “You fight like a demon.”

  “True enough.” Cian clasped hands briefly. “Let’s get them back,” he said to Hoyt, and glanced toward Glenna. “The two of you helped yourself to my horse. Good thinking as it turned out. She can ride up with Glenna.”

  “I can walk,” Moira began, only to find herself lifted off her feet and onto the horse.

  “We need to move,” Cian said briskly. “Hoyt, take point, and you stay beside the women. I’m behind you.”

  Hoyt laid a hand on the stallion’s neck as he passed, and glanced up at Glenna. “You’ve a steady seat.”

  “I’ve been riding since I was four. Don’t think about trying to leave me behind again.” Then she turned on the horse to look over her shoulder at Moira. “I’m Glenna. Nice to meet you.”

  “It’s the pure truth I can’t think of anyone in my life it’s been nicer to meet.” As the horse moved forward, Moira risked a look back. She couldn’t see the warrior. He seemed to have melted into the dark.

  “What is his name? The one who came on foot?”

  “That would be Cian. Hoyt’s up ahead. They’re brothers, and there’s a great deal to explain on all sides. But one thing’s for damn sure, we just survived our first battle. And we kicked some vampire ass.”

  Moira bided her time. Under normal circumstances she would have considered herself a guest, and behaved accordingly. But she knew that was far from the case. She and Larkin were soldiers now, in what was a very small army.

  It may have been foolish, but she was relieved not to be the only woman.

  Inside the manor house, she sat in a wondrous kitchen. A huge man with skin dark as coal worked at a stove, though she didn’t think he was a servant.

  He was called King, but she understood this wasn’t his rank. He was a man, like the others. A soldier like her.

  “We’ll patch you up,” Glenna told her. “If you want to clean up first, I can show you upstairs.”

  “Not until we’re all here.”

  Glenna cocked her head. “All right then. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I want a drink.”

  “I’d kill for one,” Larkin said with a quick smile. “Actually, it seems I have. I didn’t believe you, not really.” He laid a hand on Moira’s. “I’m sorry.”

  “It’s all right, it’s no matter. We’re alive, and where we’re meant to be. That’s what matters.” She looked up as the door opened. But it was Hoyt who came in, not the one called Cian. Still she got to her feet.

  “We haven’t thanked you properly for coming to help us. There were so many. We were losing until you came.”

  “We’ve been waiting for you.”

  “I know. Morrigan showed you to me. And you,” she said to Glenna. “Is this Ireland?”

  “It is, yes.”

  “But—”

  Moira merely laid a hand on Larkin’s shoulder. “My cousin believes Ireland is a fairy tale, even now. We come from Geall, that which was made by the gods from a handful of Ireland, to grow in peace and to be ruled by the descendent of the great Finn.”

  “You’re the scholar.”

  “Well, she loves her books, that’s for certain. Now this is fine,” Larkin said after a sip of wine.

  “And the one of many shapes,” Hoyt added.

  “That’d be me, all right.”

  When the door opened again, Moira felt relief rush through her like a tide.

  Cian flicked a glance at her, then at Glenna. “She needs tending to.”

  “Wouldn’t budge until the gang was all here. Why don’t you finish your wine, Larkin? Moira, come on upstairs with me.”

  “I have so many questions.”

  “We all do. Let’s talk over dinner.” Glenna took Moira’s hand, drew her out.

  Cian poured himself a drink, dropped down at the table. There was blood soaked through his shirt. “Do you usually bring your woman into strange places?”

  Larkin took another gulp of wine. “She wouldn’t be my woman, but my cousin, and fact of it is, she brought me. Had a vision or a dream or something mystical or other—which isn’t that unusual for her. Fanciful sort, she is. But she was bound and determined to do this thing, and I couldn’t have stopped her. Those things out there, some came to Geall. They killed her mother.”

  He took another deep drink. “We buried her this morning, if time’s the same here. Ripped her to pieces is what they did. Moira saw it.”

  “How did she survive to tell it?”

  “She doesn’t know. At least—well, she won’t really speak of it. Not as yet.”

  Upstairs, Moira washed in the shower as Glenna had showed her. The sheer pleasure of it helped ease her aches and hurts, and she considered the heat of the water nothing short of miraculous.

  When the blood and sweat had been washed away, she put on the robe Glenna left her, then came out to find her new friend waiting in the bedchamber.

  “No wonder we speak of Ireland like a fairy tale. It seems like one.”

  “You look better. Some color in your cheeks. Let’s have a look at that wound on your neck.”

  “It burns, consi
derable.” Moira touched her fingers to it. “It’s hardly more than a scratch.”

  “It’s still a vampire bite.” Examining it closely, Glenna pursed her lips. “Not a puncture though, or just barely, so that’s good. I’ve got something that should help.”

  “How did you know where to find us?”

  “We saw you in the fire.” Glenna poked into her case for the right balm.

  “You’re the witch.”

  “Mmm-hmm. Here we are.”

  “And the one called Hoyt is the sorcerer.”

  “Yes. He’s not from this world either—or not from this time. It looks like they’re getting us from all over hell and back. How does that feel?”

  “Cool.” Moira let out a sigh as the balm eased the burn. She raised her eyes to Glenna’s. “Lovely, thanks. And Cian, what manner of man is he?”

  Glenna hesitated. Full disclosure, she decided. Honesty and trust had to be bywords of their little battalion. “He’s a vampire.”

  Going pale again, Moira pushed to her feet. “Why would you say that? He fought them, he saved my life. He’s even now down in the kitchen, inside the house. Why would you call him a monster, a demon?”

  “I didn’t, because I don’t consider him either. He’s a vampire, and has been one for over nine hundred years. The one who made him is called Lilith, and she’s the one we need to worry about. He’s Hoyt’s brother, Moira, and he’s pledged to fight just like the rest of us.”

  “If what you say…He isn’t human.”

  “Your cousin changes into a horse. I’d say that makes him something more than human, too.”

  “It’s not the same.”

  “Maybe not. I don’t have the answers. I do know Cian didn’t ask for what happened to him all those years ago. I know he’s helped us get here, and he was the first one out of the house to fight for you when we saw you in the fire. I know how you’re feeling.”

  In her mind Moira saw what had been done to her mother, heard the screams, smelled the blood. “You couldn’t know.”

  “Well, I know I didn’t trust him initially either. But I do now. Completely. And I know we need him to win this. Here. I brought you some clothes. I’m taller than you, but you can just roll up the pants until we get you something that fits better. We’ll go down, have a meal, talk some of this through. And see what goes.”

  It seemed they would eat in the kitchen, like family or like servants. Moira wondered if she could eat at all, but found her appetite huge. The chicken was fried juicy and crisp with heaps of potatoes and snap beans.

  The vampyre ate little.

  “We’re gathered,” Hoyt began, “and must gather more at some point yet to be known. But it was to start with us, and so it has. Tomorrow we’ll begin to train, to learn. Cian, you know best how to fight them. You’ll be in charge. Glenna and I will work on the magicks.”

  “I need to train, too.”

  “Then you’ll be busy. We’ll need to find our strengths, and our weaknesses. We need to be ready when the final battle takes place.”

  “In the world of Geall,” Moira said, “in the Valley of Silence, in the Mountains of Mist. On the sabbot of Samhain.” Avoiding Cian’s eyes she looked at Hoyt. “Morrigan showed me.”

  “Aye.” He nodded. “I saw you there.”

  “When the time comes, we’ll go through the Dance again, and march to the battleground. It’s five days’ walk, so we’ll need to leave in good time.”

  “Are there those in Geall who’ll fight with us?”

  “Any and all will fight. Any and all would die to save our home, and the worlds.” The burden of it weighed down on her. “I have only to ask.”

  “You have a lot of faith in your fellow man,” Cian commented.

  She looked at him now, forced herself to meet his eyes. Blue, she thought, and beautiful. Would they go demon-red when he fed?

  “So I do. And in my countrymen, and in humankind. And if I did not, I would order it so. For when I return to Geall, I must go to the Royal Stone, and if I’m worthy, if I’m the one as there is no other, I will pull the sword from that sheath. And I will be queen of Geall. I won’t see my people slaughtered by what made you what you are. Not like lambs. If they die, they’ll die in battle.”

  “You should know that the little skirmish you came through tonight was nothing. It was nothing. What were there? Eight, ten of them? There’ll be thousands.” He got to his feet. “She’s had nearly two thousand years to make her army. Your farmers will have to do more than beat their plowshares into swords to survive.”

  “Then they will.”

  He inclined his head. “Be ready to train hard, and not tomorrow. Starting tonight. You forget, brother, I sleep days.”

  He left them with that.

  Chapter 9

  Glenna signalled to Hoyt, and left the others to King. She glanced back toward the kitchen, down toward the hall. She had no idea where Cian had gone.

  “We need to talk. In private.”

  “We need to work.”

  “I won’t argue with that, but you and I need to go over some things. Alone.”

  He frowned at her, but nodded. If she wanted privacy, there was one place he could be sure of it. He lead the way up the stairs, wound his way up to his tower.

  Glenna wandered the room, studied his work areas, his books and tools. She went to each narrow window, opened the glass that had been put there since his day, closed it again.

  “Nice. Very nice. Are you going to share the wealth?”

  “What is your meaning?”

  “I need a place to work—more, I’d say you and I need a place to work together. Don’t give me that look.” She waved a hand at him as she walked over to shut the door.

  “What look would that be?”

  “The ‘I’m a solitary sorcerer and don’t care for witches’ look. We’re stuck with each other, and with the rest. Somehow, God knows, we have to become a unit. Because Cian’s right.”

  She walked back to one of the windows, looked out into the moonstruck dark. “He’s right. She’ll have thousands. I never looked that far, never thought that big—though, Jesus, what’s bigger than an apocalypse? But of course, she’ll have thousands. We have a handful.”

  “It’s as it was told to us,” he reminded her. “We’re the first, the circle.”

  She turned back, and though her eyes stayed level, he saw the fear in them. And the doubt. “We’re strangers, and far from ready to join hands in a circle and chant some unity spell. We’re uneasy and suspicious of each other. Even resentful when it comes to you and your brother.”

  “I don’t resent my brother.”

  “Of course you do.” She pushed at her hair, and now he saw frustration as well. “You drew a sword on him a couple of hours ago.”

  “I thought he—”

  “Yes, yes, and more gratitude for rushing to my rescue.”

  Her dismissive tone insulted his chivalry, and put his back up. “You’re bloody welcome.”

  “If you actually save my life at some point, my gratitude will be sincere, I promise you. But defending the damsel was only part of it, and answering that was only part of why he very nearly fought you. You know it, I know it, and so does he.”

  “That being the case, there’s no need for you to babble on about it.”

  She stepped forward. He saw with some satisfaction his wasn’t the only back up now. “You’re angry with him for letting himself be killed, and worse, changed. He’s angry with you for dragging him into this, and forcing him to remember what he was before Lilith got her fangs into him. All of that’s a waste of time and energy. So, we either have to get past those emotions, or we have to use them. Because as it stands, as we stand, she’s going to slaughter us, Hoyt. I don’t want to die.”

  “If you’re afraid—”

  “Of course I’m afraid. Are you stupid? After what we’ve seen and dealt with tonight, we’d be morons not to be afraid.” She pressed her hands to her face, struggled to eve
n her breathing again. “I know what has to be done, but I don’t know how to do it. And neither do you. None of us do.”

  She dropped her hands, went to him. “Let’s you and I be honest here. We have to depend on each other, have to trust each other, so let’s be honest. We’re a handful—with power, yes, with skills—but a handful against untold numbers. How do we survive this, much less win?”

  “We gather more.”

  “How?” She lifted her hands. “How? In this time, in this place, Hoyt, people don’t believe. Anyone who goes around talking openly about vampires, sorcerers, apocalyptic battles and missions from gods is either considered eccentric—best case—or put in a padded cell.”

  Needing the contact, she brushed a hand down his arm. “We have to face it. There’s no cavalry coming to the rescue here. We are the cavalry.”

  “You give me problems, but no solutions.”

  “Maybe.” She sighed. “Maybe. But you can’t find solutions until you outline the problems. We’re ridiculously outnumbered. We’re going up against creatures—for lack of a better word—that can only be killed in a limited number of ways. They are controlled or led or driven by a vampire of enormous power and, well, thirst. I don’t know much about warfare, but I know when the odds aren’t in my favor. So we have to even the odds.”

  She spoke the kind of cold-blooded sense he couldn’t deny. The fact that she would say it was, in his mind, another kind of courage. “How?”

  “Well, we can’t go out and cut off thousands of heads, it’s just not practical. So we find the way to cut off the head of the army. Hers.”

  “If it were so simple, it would already be done.”

  “If it were impossible, we wouldn’t be here.” Frustrated, she rapped a fist on his arm. “Work with me, will you?”

  “I haven’t a choice in that.”

  Now there was hurt, just the shadow of it in her eyes. “Is it really so distasteful to you? Am I?”

  “No.” And more than a shadow of shame in his. “I’m sorry. No, not distasteful. Difficult. Distracting. You’re distracting, the way you look, the way you smell, the way you are.”

  “Oh.” Her lips curved up slowly. “That’s interesting.”

  “I don’t have time for you, in that way.”

  “What way? Be specific.” It wasn’t fair, she knew, to tease and to tempt. But it was a relief to simply be human.

  “Lives are at stake.”

  “What’s the point of living without feeling? I feel for you. You stir something in me. Yes, it’s difficult, and it’s distracting. But it tells me I’m here, and that being afraid isn’t all there is. I need that, Hoyt. I need to feel more than afraid.”

  He lifted a hand to brush his fingers over her cheek. “I can’t promise to protect you, but only to try.”

  “I’m not asking you to protect me. I’m not asking you for anything—yet—more than truth.”

  He kept his hand on her face, bringing his other up to join it in framing her as he lowered his lips. Hers parted for him, offering. So he took, needing as she did, to feel and to know.

 
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