Morrigans cross, p.19
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.19
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         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts

  his mother here, in her herb garden.

  Now, he stood over where it had been as he might have a grave, mourning and remembering. A flare of anger lit in him that his brother would let this go.

  “This what you’re looking for then?” Larkin studied the grass, then tracked his eyes through the rain, toward the trees. “Doesn’t seem to be anything left of it.”

  Hoyt heard a sound, pivoted as Larkin did. Glenna walked toward them, a stake in one hand, a knife in the other. Rain beaded her hair like tiny jewels.

  “You’re to stay in the house. There could be more of them.”

  “If there are, there are three of us now.” She jerked her head toward the house. “Five as Moira and King have us covered.”

  Hoyt looked over. Moira was in the near window, her arrow notched, her bow pointed downward. In the doorway to the left, King stood with a broadsword.

  “That ought to do it.” Larkin sent his cousin a cheeky grin. “Mind you don’t shoot one of us in the arse.”

  “Only if I’m aiming for it,” she called back.

  Beside Hoyt, Glenna studied the ground. “Was it here? The garden?”

  “It was. Will be.”

  Something was wrong, she thought, very wrong, to have put that hard look on his face. “I have a rejuvenation spell. I’ve had good luck with it, healing plants.”

  “I won’t need it for this.” He stabbed his sword in the ground to free his hands.

  He could see it, just as it had been, and honed that image clear into his mind as he stretched out his arms, spread his hands. This, he knew, would come from his heart as much as from his art. This was tribute to the one who had given him life.

  And because of it, would be painful.

  “Seed to leaf, leaf to flower. Soil and sun and rain. Remember.”

  His eyes changed, and his face looked carved from stone. Larkin started to speak, but Glenna tapped a finger to her lips to stop him. There should be no voice, no words now, she knew, but Hoyt’s. Power was already thickening the air.

  She couldn’t help with the visualization as Hoyt hadn’t described the garden to her. But she could focus on scent. Rosemary, lavender, sage.

  He repeated the incantation three times, his eyes darkening further, his voice rising with each repetition. Beneath their feet, the ground shuddered lightly.

  The wind began to lift, then swirl, then blow.

  “Rise up! Return. Grow and bloom. Gift from the earth, from the gods. For the earth, for the gods. Airmed, oh ancient one, release your bounty. Airmed, of the Tuatha de Danaan, feed this earth. As once this was, let it return.”

  His face was pale as marble, his eyes dark as onyx. And the power flowed out of him onto, into, the trembling ground.

  It opened.

  Glenna heard Larkin suck in his breath, heard her own heartbeat rise up to drum in her ears. The plants rose up, leaves unfurling, blooms bursting. The thrill spun into her, released itself of a laugh of pure delight.

  Silvery sage, glossy needles of rosemary, tumbling carpets of thyme and camomile, bay and rue, delicate spears of lavender, and more spread out of the ground and into the misting rain.

  The garden formed a Celtic knot, she saw, with narrow loops and pathways to make harvesting easier.

  As the wind died, as the earth stilled, Larkin blew out a long breath. “Well, that’s some damn fine farming.”

  She laid a hand on Larkin’s shoulder. “It’s lovely, Hoyt. Some of the prettiest magic I’ve ever seen. Blessed be.”

  He pulled his sword out of the ground. The heart that had opened to make the magic was sore as a bruise. “Take what you need, but be quick. We’ve been out long enough.”

  She used her bolline, and worked with efficiency, though she wished she could linger, just enjoy the work.

  The scents surrounded her. And what she harvested, she knew, would be only more powerful for the manner of their becoming.

  The man who’d touched her in the night, who’d held her in the morning, had more power than any she’d ever know. Any she’d ever imagined.

  “This is something I miss in the city,” she commented. “I do a lot of windowsill pots, but it’s just not the same as real gardening.”

  Hoyt said nothing, simply watched her—bright hair sparkling with rain, slim white hands brushing through the green. It closed a fist over his heart, just one quick squeeze and release.

  When she stood, her arms full, her eyes laughing with the wonder of it, that heart tipped in his breast and fell as if an arrow had pierced it.

  Bewitched, he thought. She had bewitched him. A woman’s magic always aimed first for the heart.

  “I can get quite a bit done with these.” She tossed her head to swing back her damp hair. “And have enough left to season a nice soup for dinner.”

  “Best take them in then. We’ve movement to the west.” Larkin nodded toward the west edge of the woods. “Just watching for now.”

  Bewitched, Hoyt thought again as he turned. He’d forgotten his watch, spellbound by her.

  “I count half a dozen,” Larkin continued, his voice cool and steady. “Though there may be more hanging back. Hoping to lure us, I’m thinking, into going after them. So they’ll be more, aye, more hanging back to cut us down as we come.”

  “We’ve done what we need for the morning,” Hoyt began, then thought better of it. “But no point letting them think they’ve pushed us back inside. Moira,” he said, lifting his voice enough to carry to her, “can you take one out at this distance?”

  “Which one would you like?”

  Amused, he lifted a shoulder. “Your choice. Let’s give them a bit of something to think about.”

  He’d barely uttered the words when the arrow flew, and a second so quickly after he thought he imagined it. There were two screams, one melding into the next. And where there had been six there were four—and those four rushed back into the cover of the woods.

  “Two would give them more than a bit to think about.” With a grim smile, Moira readied another arrow. “I can wing a few back into the woods, drive them back more if you like.”

  “Don’t waste your wood.”

  Cian stepped to the window behind her. He looked rumpled and mildly irritated. Moira automatically stepped aside. “Wouldn’t be wasted if they struck home.”

  “They’ll move on for now. If they were here for more than a nuisance, they’d have charged while they had the numbers.”

  He walked past her to the side door, and out.

  “Past your bedtime, isn’t it?” Glenna said.

  “I’d like to know who could sleep through all this. Felt like a bleeding earthquake.” He studied the garden. “Your work, I assume,” he said to Hoyt.

  “No.” The bitterness from the wound inside him eked out. “My mother’s.”

  “Well, next time you’ve a bit of landscaping in mind, let me know so I don’t wonder if the house is coming down on my ears. How many did you take out?”

  “Five. Moira took four.” Larkin sheathed his sword. “The other was mine.”

  He glanced back toward the window. “The little queen’s racking up quite the score.”

  “We wanted to test the waters,” Larkin told him, “and see to your horse.”

  “I’m grateful for that.”

  “I’m thinking I could take him out for a run now and again, if you wouldn’t mind it.”

  “I wouldn’t, and Vlad could use it.”

  “Vlad?” Glenna repeated.

  “Just my little in joke. If the excitement’s over, I’ll be going back to bed.”

  “I need a word with you.” Hoyt waited until Cian met his eyes. “Privately.”

  “And would this private word require standing about in the rain?”

  “We’ll walk.”

  “Suit yourself.” Then he smiled at Glenna. “You look rosy this morning.”

  “And damp. There are plenty of dry, private places inside, Hoyt.”

  “I want the air.”<
br />
  There was a moment of humming silence. “He’s a slow one. She’s waiting to be kissed, so she’ll worry less about you getting your throat ripped out because you want a walk in the rain.”

  “Go inside.” Though he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the public display, Hoyt took Glenna’s chin in his hand, kissed her lightly on the lips. “I’ll be fine enough.”

  Larkin drew his sword again, offered it to Cian. “Better armed than not.”

  “Words to live by.” Then he leaned down, gave Glenna a quick, cocky kiss himself. “I’ll be fine, as well.”

  They walked in silence, and with none of the camaraderie Hoyt remembered they’d shared. Times, he mused, they’d been able to know the other’s mind without a word spoken. Now his brother’s thoughts were barred to him, as he imagined his were to Cian.

  “You kept the roses, but let the herb garden die. It was one of her greatest pleasures.”

  “The roses have been replaced, I can’t count the times, since I acquired the place. The herbs? Gone before I bought the property.”

  “It’s not property as the place you have in New York. It’s home.”

  “It is to you.” Hoyt’s anger rolled off Cian’s back like the rain. “If you expect more than I can or will give, you’ll be in a constant state of disappointment. It’s my money that bought the land and the house that sits on it, and mine that goes to maintaining both. I’d think you’d be in a better humor this morning, after romping with the pretty witch last night.”

  “Careful where you step,” Hoyt said softly.

  “I’ve good footing.” And he couldn’t resist treading on tender ground. “She’s a prime piece, and no mistake. But I’ve had a few centuries more experience with women than you. There’s more than lust in those striking green eyes of hers. She sees a future with them. And what, I wonder, will you do about that?”

  “It’s not your concern.”

  “Not in the least, no, but it’s entertaining to speculate, particularly when I haven’t a woman of my own to divert me at the moment. She’s no round-heeled village girl happy with a roll in the hay and a trinket. She’ll want and expect more of you, as women, particularly clever women, tend to.”

  Instinctively he glanced up, checking the cloud cover. Irish weather was tricky, he knew, and the sun could decide to spill out along with the rain. “Do you think if you survive these three months, satisfy your gods, to ask them for the right to take her back with you?”

  “Why does it matter to you?”

  “Not everyone asks a question because the answer matters. Can’t you see her, tucked into your cottage on the cliffs in Kerry? No electricity, no running water, no Saks around the corner. Cooking your dinner in a pot on the fire. Likely shorten her life expectancy by half given the lack of health care and nutrition, but well then, anything for love.”

  “What do you know of it?” Hoyt snapped. “You’re not capable of love.”

  “Oh, you’d be wrong about that. My kind can love, deeply, even desperately. Certainly unwisely, which it appears we have in common. So you won’t take her back, for that would be the selfish thing. You’re much too holy, too pure for that. And enjoy the role of martyr too much as well. So you’ll leave her here to pine for you. I might amuse myself by offering her some comfort, and seeing as we share a resemblance, I wager she’ll take it. And me.”

  The blow knocked him back, but not down. He tasted blood, the gorgeous burn of it, then swiped a hand over his bleeding mouth. It had taken longer than he’d assumed it would to bait his brother.

  “Well now, that’s been a long time coming, for both of us.” He tossed his sword aside as Hoyt had. “Let’s have a go then.”

  Cian’s fist moved so fast it was only a blur—a blur that had stars exploding in front of Hoyt’s eyes. And his nose fountaining blood. Then they charged each other like rams.

  Cian took one in the kidneys, and a second strike had his ears ringing. He’d forgotten Hoyt could fight like the devil when provoked. He ducked a jab and sent Hoyt down with a kick to the midsection. And found himself on his ass as his brother slashed out his legs and took his feet out from under him.

  He could have been up in a fingersnap, ended it, but his blood was hot. And heated, preferred a grapple.

  They rolled over the ground, punching, cursing while the rain soaked them through to the skin. Elbows and fists rammed into flesh, cracked against bone.

  Then Cian reared back with a hiss and flash of fangs. Hoyt saw the burn sear into his brother’s hand, in the shape of his cross.

  “Fuck me,” Cian muttered and sucked on burned flesh and welling blood. “I guess you need a weapon to best me.”

  “Aye, fuck you. I don’t need anything but my own fists.” Hoyt reached up, had nearly yanked off the chain. Then dropped his hand when he realized the utter stupidity of it.

  “This is fine, isn’t it?” He spat out the words, and some blood with it. “This is just fine. Brawling like a couple of street rats, and leaving ourselves open to anything that comes. If anything had been nearby, we’d be dead.”

  “Already am—and speak for yourself.”

  “This isn’t what I want, trading blows with you.” Though the fight was still on his face as he swiped blood from his mouth. “It serves nothing.”

  “Felt good though.”

  Hoyt’s swollen lips twitched, and the leading edge of his temper dulled. “It did, that’s the pure truth. Holy martyr, my ass.”

  “Knew that would get under your skin.”

  “Sure you always knew how to get there. If we can’t be brothers, Cian, what are we?”

  Cian sat as he was, absently rubbing at the grass and bloodstains on his shirt. “If you win, you’ll be gone in a few months. Or I’ll see you die. Do you know how many I’ve seen die?”

  “If time’s short, it should be more important.”

  “You know nothing of time.” He got to his feet. “You want to walk? Come on then, and learn something of time.”

  He walked on through the drenching wet so that Hoyt was forced to fall in beside him.

  “Is it all still in your hands? The land?”

  “Most of it. Some was sold off a few centuries ago—and some was taken by the English during one of the wars, and given to some crony of Cromwell.”

  “Who is Cromwell?”

  “Was. A right bastard, who spent considerable time and effort burning and raping Ireland for the British royals. Politics and wars—gods, humans and demons can’t seem to get by without them. I convinced one of the man’s sons, after he’d inherited, to sell it back to me. At quite a good price.”

  “Convinced him? You killed him.”

  “And what if I did?” Cian said wearily. “It was long ago.”

  “Is that how you came by your wealth? Killing?”

  “I’ve had nine hundred years and more to fill the coffers, and have done so in a variety of ways. I like money, and I’ve always had a head for finance.”

  “Aye, you have.”

  “There were lean years in the beginning. Decades of them, but I came around. I traveled. It’s a large and fascinating world, and I like having chunks of it. Which is why I don’t care for the notion of Lilith pulling her own sort of Cromwell.”

  “Protecting your investment,” Hoyt said.

  “I am. I will. I earned what I have. I’m fluent in fifteen languages—a handy business asset.”

  “Fifteen?” It felt easier now, the walking, the talking. “You used to butcher even Latin.”

  “Nothing but time to learn, and more yet to enjoy the fruits. I enjoy them quite a bit.”

  “I don’t understand you. She took your life, your humanity.”

  “And gave me eternity. While I may not be particularly grateful to her as it wasn’t done for my benefit, I don’t see the point in spending that eternity sulking about it. My existence is long, and this is what you and your kind have.”

  He gestured toward a graveyard. “A handful of years, the
n nothing but dirt and dust.”

  There was a stone ruin overcome by vines sharp with thorns and black with berries. The end wall remained and rose in a peak. Figures had been carved into it like a frame, and had been buffed nearly smooth again by time and weather.

  Flowers, even small shrubs forced their way through the cracks with feathery purple heads drooping now, heavy from the rain.

  “A chapel? Mother spoke of building one.”

  “And one was built,” Cian confirmed. “This is what’s left of it. And them, and the ones who came after. Stones and moss and weeds.”

  Hoyt only shook his head. Stones had been plunged into the ground or set upon it to mark the dead. Now he moved among them, over uneven ground where that ground had heaved, time and again, and the tall grass was slick with wet.

  Like the carving on the ruin, the words etched into some of the stones were worn nearly smooth, and the stones bloomed with moss and lichen. Others he could read; names he didn’t know. Michael Thomas McKenna, beloved husband of Alice. Departed this earth the sixth of May, eighteen hundred and twenty-five. And Alice, who’d joined him some six years after. Their children, one who’d left the world only days after coming into it, and three others.

  They’d lived and died this Thomas, this Alice, centuries after he’d been born. And nearly two centuries before he stood here, reading their names.

  Time was fluid, he thought, and those who passed through it so fragile.

  Crosses rose up, and rounded stones tilted. Here and there weedy gardens grew over the graves as if they were tended by careless ghosts. And he felt them, those ghosts, with every step he took.

  A rose bush, heavy with rich red blooms grew lushly behind a stone no taller than his knees. Its petals were sheened like velvet. It was a quick strike to the heart, with the dull echoing pain behind it.

  He knew he stood at his mother’s grave.

  “How did she die?”

  “Her heart stopped. It’s the usual way.”

  At his sides, Hoyt’s fists bunched. “Can you be so cold, even here, even now?”

  “Some said grief stopped it. Perhaps it did. He went first.” Cian gestured to a second stone. “A fever took him around the equinox, the autumn after…I left. She followed three years after.”

  “Our sisters?”

  “There, all there.” He gestured at the grouping of stones. “And the generations that followed them—who remained in Clare, in any case. There was a famine, and it rotted the land. Scores died like flies, or fled to America, to Australia, to England, anywhere but here. There was suffering, pain, plague, pillage. Death.”

  “Nola?”

  For a moment Cian said nothing, then he continued in a tone of deliberate carelessness. “She lived into her sixties—a good, long life for that era for a woman, a human. She had five children. Or it might’ve been six.”

  “Was she happy?”

  “How could I say?” Cian said impatiently. “I never spoke to her again. I wasn’t welcome in the house I now own. Why would I be?”

  “She said I would come back.”

  “Well, you have, haven’t you?”

  Hoyt’s blood was cool now, and eking toward cold. “There’s no grave for me here. If I go back, will there be? Will it change what’s here?”

  “The paradox. Who’s to say? In any case, you vanished, or so it’s told. Depending on the version. You’re a bit of a legend in these parts. Hoyt of Clare—though Kerry likes to claim you as well. Your song and story doesn’t reach as high as a god, or even that of Merlin, but you’ve a notch in some guidebooks. The stone circle just to the north, the one you used? It’s attributed to you now,
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