Key of valor, p.17
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       Key of Valor, p.17

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “We should teach him to dance.” Venora fluttered her fingers over the strings of her harp while the puppy leaped clumsily at a passing butterfly.

  “What he’ll do is dig in the garden.” Bending, Niniane petted the pup’s head. “And be in constant trouble, just as he should. I’m so glad you found him, Kyna.”

  “He looked like he was waiting for me.” Madly in love already, she crouched, tickling the pup’s soft, fat belly. “Sitting on the path of the forest as if saying, ‘It’s about time you got here to take me home.’ ”

  “Poor little thing. I wonder how he got lost.”

  Kyna glanced at Venora. “I don’t think he was lost. I think he was found.” She lifted him up, stood to turn in a circle while he yipped and wriggled with joy. “We’ll take care of you, and protect you. And you’ll grow big and strong.”

  “Then he’ll protect us,” Niniane said and reached out to give the puppy’s tail a gentle tug.

  “We have more than enough guards already.” Rubbing her cheek against the pup’s head, Kyna turned to look back across the garden to the two figures who embraced under the blossoms of a tree. “Rowena and Pitte are either watching us, or watching each other.”

  “Our father worries too much.” Niniane set down her quill and lifted her face to the sky. A perfect bowl of blue. “How could we be safer than here, in the heart of the kingdom?”

  “There are those who would strike the heart, if they dared.” Unconsciously, Kyna laid a hand on the hilt of her sword. “Who would harm our parents, our people, and our world, even the world beyond, through us.”

  “I don’t understand the need for hate when there’s such beauty. And such love,” Venora added.

  “As long as there are those like Kane and his followers there will be a battle between what is good and what is evil. So it is in all the worlds,” Kyna told them. “There must be warriors as well as artists and bards, rulers and scholars.”

  “There’s no need for a sword today.” Niniane touched Kyna’s hip.

  “For Kyna there’s always a need for a sword,” Venora said with a laugh. “But only look. Love is surely as valiant and true a weapon as steel.” She plucked her harp as she studied Rowena and Pitte. “See how they are together, as if they need nothing but each other. One day we’ll find that.”

  “But the man I love must be as handsome as Pitte,” Niniane said, “and clever of mind.”

  “And mine will be all that, but with the soul of a poet.” With a flutter of her lashes, Venora pressed a hand to her heart. “Yours, Kyna?”

  “Ah, well.” Kyna tucked the puppy in the crook of her arm again. “Handsome, of course, and clever of mind, with that poet’s soul—and a warrior’s heart. And he must be the most skilled of lovers.”

  They giggled together, as sisters do, gathered close, and didn’t see that perfect bowl of sky begin to boil black in the west.

  Venora shivered. “It grows chilly.”

  “The wind,” Kyna began, and the world went mad.

  She whirled, her sword singing as she drew it from its sheath, as she stepped between her sisters and the shadow that spilled out of the woods.

  She heard the screams, the vicious lashing of the wind, the shouts of those who ran to defend. She saw the sly slither of a snake on the tiles and the crawl of a blue mist.

  And Kane, his eyes black with power in his handsome face, stepped out of the shadows. He raised his arms toward that boiling sky, his voice like thunder.

  Even as she charged, sword held high, the pain ripped through her like vicious fingers, tearing at her heart and dropping her to her knees.

  She saw him smile an instant before she was yanked from her own body.

  In the attic, under the harsh light of the overhead bulb, Zoe stood again, with an icy pain in her chest and tears spilling down her cheeks.

  “I hurt for them.” Zoe pressed her hands together on her kitchen table. “I felt what she felt—the emotions, the sun, the warm fur of the puppy, but I was still apart from it. I don’t know how to explain.”

  “A kind of mirror image?” Brad suggested, and nudged the wine he’d poured her a little closer. She’d held on, putting Simon to bed, but whatever she’d been feeling had showed in her eyes.

  He’d sensed it, and he suspected Simon had, too, as the boy had gone to bed without even a token protest.

  But now she was pale, and she struggled to keep her hands from trembling.

  “Yes.” It seemed to relieve her to have a name for it. “Like that, like a reflection. I walked into the mirror, like Alice,” she said with wonder. “And I knew them, Bradley. I loved them, just as she did. They were sitting in the garden, enjoying the puppy and the sunlight, a little amused, a little envious of the way Rowena and Pitte were so absorbed in each other, and talking, just young girls chatting about the kind of men they would fall in love with. Then it was dark and cold and terrifying. She tried to fight.”

  Overcome again, Zoe brushed fresh tears from her cheeks. “She tried to protect them. It was her first and last thought. He—he reveled in their pain. He celebrated her failure. I could see it on his face. She couldn’t stop it. Neither could I.”

  She picked up her wine, took a small sip.

  “You shouldn’t have been up there alone.”

  “I think I did have to be alone. I understand what you’re saying, but I think, I feel, this was something I had to experience on my own. Bradley.” She pushed the wine aside, reached across the table for his hand. “He didn’t know I was there. Kane didn’t know. I’m sure of it. It has to mean something that I was brought there without him knowing it. I think it means she’s still fighting, or trying to.”

  He sat back, considered. “Maybe it’s possible, that with the first two locks opened the daughters are able to get something through. Their thoughts, their feelings, their hope. It could be enough to connect to you, especially if they had help.”

  “Rowena and Pitte.”

  “It’s worth finding out. If you can get someone over to stay with Simon, we’ll go up and ask them.”

  “It’s nearly ten now. We wouldn’t be able to get up there and back before close to midnight. I don’t want to ask anyone to come over at this time of night.”

  “Okay. I will.” He rose, picked up the kitchen phone.

  “Bradley—”

  “Do you trust Flynn with Simon?”

  “Of course I do,” she said as he dialed. “But he shouldn’t have to leave his own house and come baby-sit.”

  Brad merely lifted a brow. “Flynn, can you come over to Zoe’s and stay with Simon? We’ve got to run up and see Rowena and Pitte. I’ll fill you in on that later. Great. See you and Malory.” He hung up the phone. “Ten minutes. That’s what friends do, Zoe.”

  “I know that.” Agitated, she pushed at her hair. “I just don’t like putting people out because I’ve got the jitters.”

  “A woman who walks into a mirror shouldn’t get the jitters driving up to the Peak.”

  “I guess not.”

  MAYBE it wasn’t the jitters so much as anticipation, she decided as they drove through the gates at the Peak. There was a new sense of urgency now that she, in some very real way, had been inside the skin of the woman in the portrait.

  The girl, she corrected herself. She’d felt all that innocence and hope and courage—the sheer youth of it. For that time in the mirror, she’d known the goddess, heart and soul.

  And her own heart ached from it.

  She glanced up at the moon as she got out of the car. It was their hourglass, she thought. And time trickled steadily away while they waited.

  It was Pitte who came to the door, opening it before they’d crossed the portico. He looked relaxed, Zoe noted, and less formal than usual, in a stone-gray sweater.

  “I’m sorry to come by so late,” she began.

  “Is it?” He took her hand and had her flushing by bringing it to his lips. “There’s no hour you’re not welcome here.”

 
“Oh.” Flustered, she looked at Brad to see him watching Pitte steadily. “That’s very nice of you. But still, we’ll try not to keep you long.”

  “As long as you like.” He kept her hand in his and drew her inside. “The nights grow cold. We’ve a fire in the parlor. Your son is well?”

  “Yes.” Had she ever had a real conversation with Pitte before? Zoe wondered. “He’s sleeping. Flynn and Malory are with him. Bradley drove me up because . . . I have some questions about things that have happened.”

  “She was attacked,” Brad said flatly as they stepped into the parlor.

  Rowena rose quickly. “Are you injured?”

  “No. No, I’m fine. Bradley, you shouldn’t scare people that way.”

  “She was attacked,” Brad repeated. “And though she got off with scrapes and bruises, it could’ve been considerably worse.”

  “You’re angry,” Pitte acknowledged. “So would I be, if she were mine. Even a warrior,” he said to Zoe before she could speak, “should appreciate having a champion.”

  “Sit, please.” Rowena gestured to the sofa. “Tea, I think. Something soothing. I’ll arrange it.” But she went to Zoe first, cupped Zoe’s face in her hand and kissed her cheeks. “I’m in your debt,” she said softly. “And there is no payment full enough.”

  Staggered, Zoe simply stood as Rowena glided from the room. Then she looked at Pitte. “It was you. In the woods. The buck in the woods. It was you.”

  He touched her again, just a skim of fingertips over her cheek. “Why didn’t you run, little mother?”

  “I couldn’t. You were hurt.” Her legs trembled, so she lowered to the couch. “I was too scared, and too mad to run. And you were hurt.”

  “She rushed him, with a tree branch for a club,” he told Brad. “And she was magnificent. You are a fortunate man.”

  “She’s not as convinced of that as I am. Yet.”

  Confused, Zoe pressed her fingers to her temples. “You were in the woods, watching out for me. The buck . . . it had your eyes.”

  He smiled when Rowena came back into the room. “I might not have been there, if Rowena hadn’t nagged at me.”

  “Would he have killed me?”

  “He has spilled human blood.” Pitte settled into a chair. “He might have spilled yours.”

  “Would he—could he have killed you?”

  Pitte’s chin angled just enough for arrogance. “He would have tried.”

  “Might have been a bit more effective to come as yourself, with a shotgun,” Brad pointed out.

  “I can’t battle him in human form while he takes the form of an animal.”

  “You were badly hurt,” Zoe remembered. “Your side was gouged.”

  “And has been tended. Thank you.”

  “Ah, here’s the tea. He grumbled when I tended him.” Rowena scooted forward to lift the teapot the servant set on the table. “Which is a good sign. Were Pitte seriously wounded he would say nothing.”

  “I was right to go back there. I feel, most of the time, I feel I’m not doing enough. But I was right to go back there.”

  “The path is yours to take.” Rowena offered Zoe a cup. “Your man is worried for you. I understand,” she said to Bradley and poured a second cup. “I can promise you we’ll do all we can to keep her safe.”

  “You put protection around Simon. Put protection around her.”

  Rowena’s face mirrored sympathy as she held out the second cup. “There is no key without risk. There is no end to risk without the key. She needs your faith in her. It’s as vital as a shield and a sword.”

  “I have all the faith in the world in Zoe. And no trust whatsoever for Kane.”

  “You’re wise on both counts,” Pitte acknowledged. “He may be licking his wounds for the moment, but he’s not finished. With either of you.”

  “He hasn’t bothered with me,” Brad pointed out.

  “A canny foe chooses the time and the field. The more she cares for you, the harder the blow. After all, the surest way to the soul is through the heart.”

  As Zoe’s cup rattled in its saucer, Brad nodded to Pitte. “Let’s worry about what is for now, and handle what comes as we get to it. You’re the keeper of the keys,” he said to Rowena. “The rules have changed, you’ve said so yourself. Give her the key, and end it.”

  “He negotiates.” Obviously pleased, Pitte sat straighter. “There is a contract.”

  “Which stated nothing about danger to life and limb,” Brad said easily. “The terms of which were voided when attacks were made on the people involved.”

  “They waived recompense for any injuries beyond our control.”

  “There wasn’t full disclosure.”

  Rowena let out a sigh. “Must you get him started?” she said to Brad. “I’m sure both of you would enjoy a good wrangle over contracts and terms and what have you. And the fact is, I would agree there would no longer be the penalty of a year of your lives, as stated in the contract, if Zoe decides to end her quest. Pitte would agree as well, though he would enjoy arguing the terms first for form.”

  “And entertainment,” he added.

  “I can’t give her the key,” Rowena continued. “Once the quest was accepted, once it was begun, it was out of my hands. I can’t touch the keys until they’re found by the ones chosen to find them, or until the time has elapsed. Such is the nature of this.”

  “Then tell her where it is.”

  “I can’t.”

  “Because it’s not anywhere until I find it,” Zoe said softly as it settled clearly into her mind. “It’s not there,” she said, looking over at Rowena now, “until I know.”

  “You have all the power in this, and have only to understand how to use it.”

  “Did I send myself through the mirror? Or did you?”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “The mirror in the attic at Indulgence. Kyna was in it. We looked at each other, then I stepped through, and I was there, in the garden of the painting. I was part of her.”

  Rowena clamped a hand over Zoe’s wrist. “Tell me all. Exactly as it was.”

  As she did, Rowena’s gaze never left her face. The fingers dug into her flesh until she could feel the blood gathering to bruise.

  When she was done, Zoe felt those fingers tremble once before they dropped away. “A moment,” Rowena said in a thick voice, and rose to stand facing the fire.

  “A ghra.” Pitte crossed to her, lowered his cheek to the top of her head.

  “Is it bad?” Shaken, Zoe reached out, searching for Brad’s hand.

  “I feared the worst for my world. That Kane would defy all law and go unchecked. That he would spill the blood of mortals and not be punished. Oh.” Rowena turned, pressed her face to Pitte’s chest. “My heart was dark and full of fear.”

  “A battle rages, there can be no doubt. And I am trapped here.” Frustration scraped through Pitte’s words.

  “Here is where you’re needed.” Rowena stepped back from them. Her cheeks were damp with tears. “This battle must be won as well.”

  She moved to Zoe again. “There is new hope.”

  Opening her purse, Zoe pulled out a tissue, offered it. “I don’t understand.”

  “I didn’t see this, nor did Kane. Didn’t anticipate it, nor did he. If she was able to show you, to let you touch what she is, he was able to reach her.”

  “Who?”

  “The king. It is not only Kane who can use war to his own ends. If we can win on this ground, the king will win on his. You’ve been given a gift, Zoe. For a few moments you were a goddess, the daughter of a king.” Her face glowed. “You weren’t only shown what they are, what they lost, you touched it. Kane can never break that bond.”

  “She tried to fight, but she couldn’t. She drew her sword,” Zoe said, and could feel—even now—the way it had all but flown out of its sheath. “But he struck her down before she could use it.”

  “The battle’s not done.” Gently now, Rowena touched her hand.
“In your world or in mine.”

  “She knew him. She understood—when it happened, she understood, and she looked him in the face.”

  “She touched you, lived in you for those same few moments, knew, I think, what you knew. That was your gift to her.”

  “I’m not going to leave her there. I hope she knows that.”

  BRAD hung back as they started to leave, and turned to Pitte while Rowena walked Zoe to the door. “If he hurts her I’ll come for you, whatever form you take.”

  “I would do the same, were our situations reversed.”

  Brad glanced toward Zoe, kept his voice low. “Tell me what to do to make him come after me.”

  “He will, because you’re linked. All of you are linked. Make her love you, and it will be the sooner.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  SLEEP, Zoe decided, wasn’t going to be a priority for a while. The way she had things planned, it wasn’t even going to make the top five. She had a son to raise and she didn’t feel as if she’d been giving him the time or attention he deserved. She had a business to get organized, and that was going to eat up considerably more time.

  She was having her first serious adult relationship with a man, and she hadn’t had the time to figure out how she’d gotten into it, much less how to enjoy it.

  She had a quest, and if she didn’t cross the finish line in under two weeks, all was lost. What was trapped inside a glass box had for a miraculous moment lived inside her. She was prepared to sweat blood to save it.

  So sleep would just have to wait until she could work it into her schedule.

  She spent a day at Indulgence interviewing her prospective employees, working out potential hours and a pay scale. She spent the evening with Simon, helping him design a birdhouse for a school project, giving his hair a trim, and just enjoying his company.

  Most of the night was split between paperwork and household chores she’d let slide for too long.

  She crunched numbers, she juggled them. She stretched them, and she compressed them, but the results were the same. The start-up costs had devoured her capital at a staggering rate. A great deal of that had to do with her own determination to start up with style, she admitted. But she’d be damned if she would allow anything to dull this dream.

  So, she would be running close to the bone, she acknowledged as she studied the spreadsheet she’d created on the computer. She had run close to it before. If they managed to have their opening the day after Thanksgiving, and if they actually had paying customers, they would quickly start to offset the outlay. In dribbles, but a dribble could become a trickle and a trickle a flood.

  Those weeks before Christmas were the prime cut in retail, and just what Indulgence needed to get it off the ground.

  If there was one thing she knew how to do, it was how to stretch a dollar. She’d make it. She would need to eke out another two years on her car without any major repair bills, please God.

  She could nip at corners a little here, a little there, without it affecting Simon. Six months, maybe a year, and Indulgence was going to make such a big difference in their lives. It would give them the stability she so desperately wanted for her son. And it would give her the pride and respect she so desperately wanted for herself.

  It was where she’d been heading since she’d walked out of that trailer at sixteen. A major intersection among the many in her life. One more direction. Considering, she sat back. What about the others?

  If Indulgence was one of her crossroads, so was the house she lived in, the
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