Morrigans cross, p.13
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.13
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         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts

  To be human.

  It was a slow simmering in the blood, a lazy tightening of muscle, a flutter of pulse—hers and his.

  So easy, he thought, so easy to sink into the warm and the soft. To be surrounded by her in the dark and let himself forget, for a moment, for an hour, all that lay before them.

  Her arms slid around him, linking his waist as she shifted up on her toes to meet his mouth more truly. He tasted her lips and her tongue, and the promise of them. This could be his. And he wanted to believe it more than he’d ever believed anything.

  Her lips moved on his, forming his name—once, then twice. A sudden spark flared, simmer to sizzle. The heat of it rippled over his skin, burned into his heart.

  Behind them, the fire that had gone to embers flared up like a dozen torches.

  He drew her back, but his hands still lingered on her cheeks. He could see the fire dance in her eyes.

  “There’s truth in that,” he whispered. “But I don’t know what it is.”

  “Neither do I. But I feel better for it. Stronger.” She looked toward the fire. “We’re stronger together. That means something.”

  She stepped back. “I’m going to bring my things up here, and we’ll work together and find out what it means.”

  “You think lying together is the answer?”

  “It may be, or may be one of them. But I’m not ready to lie with you yet. My body is,” she admitted. “But my mind isn’t. When I give myself to someone, it’s a commitment for me. A big one. Both of us have committed quite a bit already. We’ll both have to be sure we’re ready to give more.”

  “Then what was this?”

  “Contact,” she said quietly. “Comfort.” She reached a hand for his. “Connection. We’re going to make magic together, Hoyt, serious magic. That’s as intimate to me as sex. I’m going to get what I need, bring it up.”

  Women, he thought, were powerful and mystical creatures even without witchcraft. Add that dose of power and a man was at a serious sort of disadvantage.

  Wasn’t her scent still wrapped around him, and the taste of her still on his lips? Women’s weapons, he decided. Just as slipping away was a kind of weapon.

  He’d do well to arm himself against that sort of thing.

  She intended to work here in his tower, alongside him. There was good, strong sense in that. But how was a man supposed to work when his thoughts kept drifting to a woman’s mouth, or her skin, her hair, her voice?

  Perhaps he’d be wise to make use of a barrier, at least temporarily. He moved to his worktable and prepared to do just that.

  “Your potions and spells will have to wait,” Cian said from the doorway. “And so will romance.”

  “I don’t follow your meaning.” Hoyt continued to work.

  “I passed Glenna on the stairs. I know when a woman’s had a man’s hands on her. I could smell you on her. Not that I blame you,” Cian added lazily as he strolled into and around the room. “That’s a very sexy witch you have there. Desirable,” he added at his brother’s stony look. “Alluring. Bed her if you like, but later.”

  “Who I bed, and when, is nothing to you.”

  “Who, certainly not, but when’s another matter. We’ll use the great hall for combat training. King and I have already begun to set up. I don’t intend to end up with a stake through my heart because you and the redhead are too busy to train.”

  “It won’t be a problem.”

  “I don’t intend to let it be. The newcomers are unknown entities. The man fights well enough with a sword, but he’s protective of his cousin. If she can’t stand up in battle, we need to find another use for her.”

  “It’s your job to see that she can, and will, stand up in battle.”

  “I’ll work her,” Cian promised. “And the rest of you. But we’ll need more than swords and stakes, more than muscle.”

  “We’ll have it. Leave that to me. Cian,” he said before his brother could leave the room. “Did you ever see them again? Do you know how they fared, what became of them?”

  He didn’t have to be told his brother spoke of their family. “They lived and they died, as humans will.”

  “Is that all they are to you?”

  “Shadows are what they are.”

  “You loved them once.”

  “My heart beat once as well.”

  “Is that the measure of love? A heartbeat?”

  “We can love, even we can love. But to love a human?” Cian shook his head. “Only misery and tragedy could follow. Your parents sired what I was. Lilith made what I am.”

  “And do you have love for her?”

  “For Lilith.” His smile was slow, thoughtful. And humorless. “In my fashion. But don’t worry. It won’t stop me from destroying her. Come down, and we’ll see what you’re made of.”

  “Two hours’ hand-to-hand, every day,” Cian announced when they were gathered. “Two hours’ weapons training, every day. Two hours’ endurance, and two on martial arts. I’ll work you here at night. King will take over in the daylight when you can train outdoors.”

  “We need time for study and strategy as well,” Moira pointed out.

  “Then make it. They’re stronger than you, and more vicious than you can imagine.”

  “I know what they are.”

  Cian merely looked at her. “You think you do.”

  “Had you ever killed one before tonight?” she demanded.

  “I have, more than one.”

  “In my world those that would kill their own kind are villains and outcasts.”

  “If I hadn’t, you’d be dead.”

  He moved so quickly no one had a chance to react. He was behind Moira’s back, an arm around her waist. And a knife at her throat. “Of course, I wouldn’t need the knife.”

  “You’re not to touch her.” Larkin laid a hand on the hilt of his own knife. “You’re not to put your hands on her.”

  “Stop me,” Cian invited, and tossed his knife aside. “I’ve just snapped her neck.” He laid his hands on either side of Moira’s head, then gave her a little nudge that sent her careening into Hoyt. “Avenge her. Attack me.”

  “I won’t attack the man who fought at my back.”

  “I’m not at your back now, am I? Show some spine, or don’t the men of Geall have any?”

  “We’ve plenty.” Larkin drew his knife, crouched. Began to circle.

  “Don’t play at it,” Cian taunted. “I’m unarmed. You have the advantage. Use it—quickly.”

  Larkin lunged—feinted, then slashed. And found himself flat on his back, with his knife skittering over the floor.

  “You never have the advantage over a vampire. First lesson.”

  Larkin shook back his hair and grinned. “You’re better than they were.”

  “Considerably.” Amused, Cian held down a hand, helped Larkin to his feet.

  “We’ll start with some basic maneuvers, see what you’re made of. Choose an opponent. You have one minute to take that opponent down—bare-handed. When I call switch, choose another. Move fast, and hard. Now.”

  He watched his brother hesitate and the witch turn into him, using her body to shift him off balance, then hooking her foot behind his to send him down.

  “Self-defense training,” Glenna announced. “I live in New York.”

  While she was grinning, Hoyt swept her feet out from under her. Her ass hit the floorboards, hard. “Ouch. First request, we get pads for the floor.”

  “Switch!”

  They moved, they maneuvered, grappled. And it was more game and competition than training. Even so, Glenna thought, she was going to have her share of bruises. She faced off with Larkin, sensed he would hold back. So she sent him a flirtatious smile, and when the laugh lit his eyes, flipped him over her shoulder.

  “Sorry. I like to win.”

  “Switch.”

  The bulk of King filled her vision, and she looked up, up, until she met his eyes. “Me, too,” he told her.

  She wen
t with instinct, a movement of her hands, a rapid chant. When he smiled blankly, she touched his arm. “Why don’t you sit down?”

  “Sure.”

  When he obeyed, she glanced over, saw Cian watching her. And flushed a little. “That was probably against the rules—and it’s unlikely I’d be able to pull it off in the heat of battle, but I think it should count.”

  “There are no rules. She’s not the strongest,” he called out. “She’s not the fastest. But she’s the most clever of the lot of you. She uses wile and she uses wit as much as muscle and speed. Get stronger,” he said to Glenna. “Get faster.”

  For the first time he smiled. “And get a sword. We’ll start on weapons.”

  By the end of the next hour, Glenna was dripping sweat. Her sword arm ached like a bad tooth from shoulder to wrist. The thrill of the work, of actually doing something tangible had long since faded into a bitter exhaustion.

  “I thought I was in good shape,” she complained to Moira. “All those hours of pilates, of yoga, of weights—and I might as well be speaking to you in tongues.”

  “You’re doing well.” And Moira herself felt weak and clumsy.

  “I’m barely standing. I do regular exercise, hard physical training, and this is turning me into a wimp. And you look beat.”

  “It’s been a very long, very hard day.”

  “That’s putting it mildly.”

  “Ladies? If I could trouble you to join us. Or would you rather have a seat and discuss fashion?”

  Glenna set down her water bottle. “It’s nearly three in the morning,” she said to Cian. “A dangerous time for sarcasm.”

  “And prime time for your enemy.”

  “That may be, but not all of us are on that same clock just yet. And Moira and Larkin have traveled a hell of a long way today and dealt with a very nasty welcome. We need to train, you’re absolutely right. But if we don’t rest we’re not going to get strong, and we’re sure as hell not going to get fast. Look at her,” Glenna demanded. “She can barely stay upright.”

  “I’m fine,” Moira said quickly.

  Cian gave her a long look. “Then we can blame fatigue for your sloppy swordsmanship and poor form.”

  “I do well enough with a sword.” When she reached for it, blood in her eye, Larkin stepped up. He slapped a hand on her shoulder, and squeezed.

  “Well enough she does, so she proved earlier tonight. But the blade wouldn’t be my cousin’s weapon of choice.”

  “Oh?” A wealth of boredom was contained in the single syllable.

  “She’s a decent hand with a bow.”

  “She can give us a demonstration tomorrow, but for now—”

  “I can do it tonight. Open the doors.”

  The tone of command had Cian’s brow winging up. “You don’t rule here, little queen.”

  “Nor do you.” She strode over, picked up bow and quiver. “Will you open the doors, or will I?”

  “You’re not to go out.”

  “He’s right, Moira,” Glenna began.

  “I won’t have to. Larkin, if you would.”

  Larkin moved to the doors and threw them open to the wide terrace beyond. Moira notched an arrow as she moved to the threshold. “The oak, I think.”

  Cian moved to her side as the others crowded in. “Not much of a distance.”

  “She wouldn’t be meaning the near one,” Larkin said and gestured. “But that one there, just to the right of the stables.”

  “Lowest branch.”

  “I can barely see it,” Glenna commented.

  “Can you?” Moira demanded of Cian.

  “Perfectly.”

  She lifted the bow, steadied, sighted. And let the arrow fly.

  Glenna heard the whiz, then a faint thunk as the arrow hit home. “Wow. Got ourselves a Robin Hood.”

  “Nicely shot,” Cian said in mild tones, then turned to walk away. He sensed the movement even before he heard his brother’s sharp command.

  When he turned, Moira had another arrow ready, and aimed at him.

  He sensed King prepare to rush forward, and held up a hand to stop him. “Be sure to hit the heart,” he advised Moira. “Otherwise you’ll just annoy me. Let it be,” he snapped to Hoyt. “It’s her choice.”

  The bow trembled a moment, then Moira lowered it. Lowered her eyes as well. “I need sleep. I’m sorry, I need sleep.”

  “Of course you do.” Glenna took the bow from her, set it aside. “I’ll take you down, get you settled.” Glenna aimed a look at Cian every bit as sharp as the arrow as she led Moira from the room.

  “I’m sorry,” Moira said again. “I’m ashamed.”

  “Don’t be. You’re overtired, overworked. Over everything. We all are. And it’s barely begun. A few hours’ sleep is what we all need.”

  “Do they? Do they sleep?”

  Glenna understood what she meant. The vampires. Cian. “Yes, it seems they do.”

  “I wish it was morning so I could see the sun. They crawl back into their holes with the sun. I’m too tired to think.”

  “Then don’t. Here, let’s get you undressed.”

  “I lost my pack in the woods, I think. I don’t have a nightdress.”

  “We’ll figure that out tomorrow. You can sleep naked. Do you want me to sit with you awhile?”

  “No. Thank you, no.” Tears welled up and were willed back. “I’m being a child.”

  “No. Just an exhausted woman. You’ll be better in the morning. Good night.”

  Glenna debated going back up, then simply turned toward her own room. She didn’t give a damn if the men thought she was copping out, she wanted sleep.

  The dreams chased her, through the tunnels of the vampire’s cave where the screams of the tortured were like slashing knives in her mind, into her heart. Everywhere she turned in the labyrinth, each time she raced into the dark opening, like a mouth waiting to devour her, the screams followed.

  And worse than the screams, even worse, was the laughter.

  The dreams hunted her along the rocky shore of a boiling sea where red lightning hacked black sky, black sea. There the wind tore at her, there the rocks pierced up out of the ground to stab at her hands, her feet until both were bloody.

  Into the dense woods that smelled of blood and death, where the shadows were so thick she could feel them brushing over her skin like cold fingers.

  She could hear what craved her coming with the papery snap of wings, the slithery slide of snakes, the sly scrape of claw on earth.

  She heard the wolf howl, and the sound was hunger.

  They were everywhere she was, and she had nothing but her empty hands and pounding heart. Still she ran blindly, the scream trapped in her burning throat.

  She burst out of the trees and onto a cliff above a raging sea. Below her, waves lashed at rocks that rose up, sharp as razors. Somehow in her terror she’d run in a circle, and was back above the cave that held something even death feared.

  The wind whipped at her, and power sang in it. His power, the hot, clean power of the sorcerer. She reached for it, strained toward it. But it slipped through her shaking fingers and left her nothing but herself.

  When she turned, Lilith stood, regal in red, her beauty luminous against the velvet black. At each side was a black wolf, quivering for the kill. Lilith stroked her hands over their backs, hands that glittered with rings.

  And when she smiled, Glenna felt a terrible pull inside her own belly. A deep and terrible yearning.

  “The devil or the deep blue.” With a laugh, Lilith snapped her fingers for the wolves to sit. “The gods never give their servants decent choices, do they? I have better.”

  “You’re death.”

  “No, no, no. I’m life. That’s where they lie. They’re death, flesh and bone moldering in the dirt. What do they give you these days? Seventy-five, eighty years? How small, how limiting.”

  “I’ll take what I’m given.”

  “Then you’d be a fool. I think you’re smarte
r than that, more practical. You know you can’t win. You’re already tired, already weary, already questioning. I’ll offer you a way out, and more. So much more.”

  “To be like you? To hunt and kill? To drink blood?”

  “Like champagne. Oh, the first taste of it. I envy you that. That first heady taste, that moment when everything falls away but the dark.”

  “I like the sun.”

  “With that complexion?” Lilith said with a gay laugh. “You’d fry like bacon after an hour on the beach. I’ll show you the coolness. The cool, cool dark. It’s inside you already, just waiting to be wakened. Can you feel it?”

  Because she could, Glenna only shook her head.

  “Liar. If you come to me, Glenna, you’ll stand by my side. I’ll give you life, eternal life. Eternal youth and beauty. Power so beyond what they’ve given you. You’ll rule your own world. I would give you that, a world of your own.”

  “Why would you?”

  “Why not? I’ll have so many. And I’d enjoy the company of a woman such as yourself. What are men, really, but tools to us? If you want them, you’ll take them. This is a great gift I offer you.”

  “It’s damnation you offer me.”

  Her laugh was lilting and seductive. “Gods frighten children with talk of hell and damnation. They use it to keep you bound. Ask Cian if he would trade his existence, his eternity, his handsome youth and lithe body for the chains and traps of mortality. Never, I promise you. Come. Come with me, and I’ll give you pleasure beyond pleasure.”

  When she stepped closer, Glenna held up both hands, drew what she could out of her chilled blood and struggled to cast a protective circle.

  Lilith simply struck out a hand. The tender blue of her irises began to redden. “Do you think such puny magic will hold me? I’ve drunk the blood of sorcerers, feasted on witches. They’re in me, as you will be. Come willing, and take life. Fight, and take death.”

  She moved closer, and the wolves rose to stalk.

  Glenna felt the pull, mesmerizing, glorious and dark, a drawing up in the belly that was elemental. It seemed the beat of her blood answered that call. Eternity and power, beauty, youth. All for one moment.

  She had only to reach for it.

  Triumph lit Lilith’s eyes, burned them to red. Fangs flashed as she smiled.

  Tears slid down Glenna’s cheeks as she turned, as she leaped toward the sea and the rocks. As she chose death.

  There was a scream ripping through her head when she shot up in bed. But it wasn’t her own, she knew it wasn’t her own. It was Lilith’s, a scream of fury.

  With her breath sobbing, Glenna scrambled out of bed, dragging the blanket with her. She ran, trembling from terror and cold, her teeth chattering with them. She fled down the hallway as if the demons were still after her. Instinct took her to the one place, the only place, she felt safe.

 
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