Morrigans cross, p.2
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.2

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  “No.” She touched Hoyt’s face, and he felt the heat of her. “You would have lost him, and yourself. I promise you. You would give your life for his, but you could not give your soul, or the souls of others. You have a great gift, Hoyt.”

  “What good is it if I cannot protect my own blood? Do the gods demand such sacrifice, to damn an innocent to such torment?”

  “It was not the gods who damned him. Nor was it for you to save him. But there is sacrifice to be made, battles to be fought. Blood, innocent and otherwise, to be spilled. You have been chosen for a great task.”

  “You could ask anything of me now, Lady?”

  “Aye. A great deal will be asked of you, and of others. There is a battle to be fought, the greatest ever waged. Good against evil. You must gather the forces.”

  “I am not able. I am not willing. I am…God, I am tired.”

  He dropped to the edge of his cot, dropped his head in his hands. “I must go see my mother. I must tell her I failed to save her son.”

  “You have not failed. Because you resisted the dark, you are charged to bear this standard, to use the gift you’ve been given to face and to vanquish that which would destroy worlds. Shake off this self-pity!”

  His head rose at the sharp tone. “Even the gods must grieve, Lady. I have killed my brother tonight.”

  “Your brother was killed by the beast, a week ago. What fell from the cliff was not your Cian. You know this. But he…continues.”

  Hoyt got shakily to his feet. “He lives.”

  “It is not life. It is without breath, without soul, without heart. It has a name that is not spoken yet in this world. It is vampyre. It feeds on blood,” she said, moving toward him. “It hunts the human, takes life, or worse, much worse, turns that which it hunts and kills into itself. It breeds, Hoyt, like a pestilence. It has no face, and must hide from the sun. It is this you must fight, this and other demons that are gathering. You must meet this force in battle on the feast of Samhain. And you must be victorious or the world you know, the worlds you have yet to know, will be overcome.”

  “And how will I find them? How will I fight them? It was Cian who was the warrior.”

  “You must leave this place and go to another, and another still. Some will come to you, and some you will seek. The witch, the warrior, the scholar, the one of many forms, and the one you’ve lost.”

  “Only five more? Six against an army of demons? My lady—”

  “A circle of six, as strong and true as the arm of a god. When that circle is formed, others may be formed. But the six will be my army, the six will make the ring. You will teach and you will learn, and you will be greater than the sum of you. A month to gather, and one to learn, and one to know. The battle comes on Samhain.

  “You, child, are my first.”

  “You would ask me to leave the family I have left, when that thing that took my brother may come for them?”

  “The thing that took your brother leads this force.”

  “I wounded her—it. I gave her pain.” And the memory of that bubbled up in him like vengeance.

  “You did, aye, you did. And this is only another step toward this time and this battle. She bears your mark now, and will, in time, seek you out.”

  “If I hunt her now, destroy her now.”

  “You cannot. She is beyond you at this time, and you, my child, are not ready to face her. Between these times and worlds, her thirst will grow insatiable until only the destruction of all humankind will satisfy it. You will have your revenge, Hoyt,” she said as he got to his feet. “If you defeat her. You will travel far, and you will suffer. And I will suffer knowing your pain, for you are mine. Do you think your fate, your happiness is nothing to me? You are my child even as you are your mother’s.”

  “And what of my mother, Lady? Of my father, my sisters, their families? Without me to protect them, they may be the first to die if this battle you speak of comes to pass.”

  “It will come to pass. But they will be beyond it.” She spread her hands. “Your love for your blood is part of your power, and I will not ask you to turn from it. You will not think clearly until you have assurance they will be safe.”

  She tipped back her head, held her arms up, palms cupped. The ground shook lightly under his feet, and when Hoyt looked up, he saw stars shooting through the night sky. Those points of light streamed toward her hands, and there burst into flame.

  His heart thumped against his bruised ribs as she spoke, as her fiery hair flew around her illuminated face.

  “Forged by the gods, by the light and by the night. Symbol and shield, simple and true. For faith, for loyalty, these gifts for you. Their magic lives through blood shed, yours and mine.”

  Pain sliced over his palm. He watched the blood well in his, and in hers as the fire burned.

  “And so it shall live for all time. Blessed be those who wear Morrigan’s Cross.”

  The fire died, and in the goddess’s hands were crosses of gleaming silver.

  “These will protect them. They must wear the cross always—day and night—birth to death. You will know they are safe when you leave them.”

  “If I do this thing, will you spare my brother?”

  “You would bargain with the gods?”

  “Aye.”

  She smiled, an amused mother to a child. “You have been chosen, Hoyt, because you would think to do so. You will leave this place and gather those who are needed. You will prepare and you will train. The battle will be fought with sword and lance, with tooth and fang, with wit and treachery. If you are victorious, the worlds will balance and you will have all you wish to have.”

  “How do I fight a vampyre? I’ve already failed against her.”

  “Study and learn,” she said. “And learn from one of her kind. One she made. One who was yours before she took him. You must first find your brother.”

  “Where?”

  “Not only where, but when. Look into the fire, and see.”

  They were, he noted, in his cottage again, and he was standing in front of the hearth. The flames spiked up, became towers. Became a great city. There were voices and sounds such as he’d never heard. Thousands of people rushed along streets that were made of some kind of stone. And machines sped with them.

  “What is this place?” He could barely whisper the words. “What world is it?”

  “It is called New York, and its time is nearly a thousand years from where we are. Evil still walks the world, Hoyt, as well as innocence, as well as good. Your brother has walked the world a long time now. Centuries have passed for him. You would do well to remember that.”

  “Is he a god now?”

  “He is vampyre. He must teach you, and he must fight beside you. There can be no victory without him.”

  Such size, he thought. Buildings of silver and stone taller than any cathedral. “Will the war be in this place, in this New York?”

  “You will be told where, you will be told how. And you will know. Now you must go, take what you need. Go to your family and give them their shields. You must leave them quickly, and go to the Dance of the Gods. You will need your skill, and my power, to pass through. Find your brother, Hoyt. It is time for the gathering.”

  He woke by the fire, the blanket wrapped around him. But he saw it hadn’t been a dream. Not with the blood drying on the palm of his hand, and the silver crosses lying across his lap.

  It was not yet dawn, but he packed books and potions, oatcakes and honey. And the precious crosses. He saddled his horse, and then, as a precaution, cast another protective circle around his cottage.

  He would come back, he promised himself. He would find his brother, and this time, he would save him. Whatever it took.

  As the sun cast its first light, he began the long ride to An Clar, and his family home.

  Chapter 2

  He traveled north on roads gone to mud from the storm. The horrors and the wonders of the night played through his mind as he hunched over his horse, fa
voring his aching ribs.

  He swore, should he live long enough, he would practice healing magic more often, and with more attention.

  He passed fields where men worked and cattle grazed in the soft morning sunlight. And lakes that picked up their blue from the late summer sky. He wound through forests where the waterfalls thundered and the shadows and mosses were the realm of the faerie folk.

  He was known here, and caps were lifted when Hoyt the Sorcerer passed by. But he didn’t stop to take hospitality in one of the cabins or cottages. Nor did he seek comfort in one of the great houses, or in the conversations of monks in their abbeys or round towers.

  In this journey he was alone, and above battles and orders from gods, he would seek his family first. He would offer them all he could before he left them to do what he’d been charged to do.

  As the miles passed, he struggled to straighten on his horse whenever he came to villages or outposts. His dignity cost him considerable discomfort until he was forced to take his ease by the side of a river where the water gurgled over rock.

  Once, he thought, he had enjoyed this ride from his cottage to his family home, through the fields and the hills, or along the sea. In solitude, or in the company of his brother, he had ridden these same roads and paths, felt this same sun on his face. Had stopped to eat and rest his horse at this very same spot.

  But now the sun seared his eyes, and the smell of the earth and grass couldn’t reach his deadened senses.

  Fever sweat slicked his skin, and the angles of his face were keener as he bore down against the unrelenting pain.

  Though he had no appetite, he ate part of one of the oatcakes along with more of the medicine he’d packed. Despite the brew and the rest, his ribs continued to ache like a rotted tooth.

  Just what good would he be in battle? he wondered. If he had to lift his sword now to save his life he would die with his hands empty.

  Vampyre, he thought. The word fit. It was erotic, exotic, and somehow horrible. When he had both time and energy, he would write down more of what he knew. Though he was far from convinced he was about to save this world or any other from some demonic invasion, it was always best to gather knowledge.

  He closed his eyes a moment, resting them against the headache that drummed behind them. A witch, he’d been told. He disliked dealing with witches. They were forever stirring odd bits of this and that in pots and rattling their charms.

  Then a scholar. At least he might be useful.

  Was the warrior Cian? That was his hope. Cian wielding sword and shield again, fighting alongside him. He could nearly believe he could fulfill the task he’d been given if his brother was with him.

  The one with many shapes. Odd. A faerie perhaps, and the gods knew just how reliable such creatures were. And this was somehow to be the front line in the battle for worlds?

  He studied the hand he’d bandaged that morning. “Better for all if it had been dreaming. I’m sick and tired is what I am, and no soldier at the best of it.”

  Go back. The voice was a hissing whisper. Hoyt came to his feet, reaching for his dagger.

  Nothing moved in the forest but the black wings of a raven that perched in shadows on a rock by the water.

  Go back to your books and herbs, Hoyt the Sorcerer. Do you think you can defeat the Queen of the Demons? Go back, go back and live your pitiful life, and she will spare you. Go forward, and she will feast on your flesh and drink of your blood.

  “Does she fear to tell me so herself then? And so she should, for I will hunt her through this life and the next if need be. I will avenge my brother. And in the battle to come, I will cut out her heart and burn it.”

  You will die screaming, and she will make you her slave for eternity.

  “It’s an annoyance you are.” Hoyt shifted his grip on the dagger. As the raven took wing he flipped it through the air. It missed, but the flash of fire he shot out with his free hand hit the mark. The raven shrieked, and what dropped to the ground was ashes.

  In disgust Hoyt looked at the dagger. He’d been close, and would likely have done the job if he hadn’t been wounded. At least Cian had taught him that much.

  But now he had to go fetch the bloody thing.

  Before he did, he took a handful of salt from his saddlebags, poured it over the ashes of the harbinger. Then retrieving his dagger, he went to his horse and mounted with gritted teeth.

  “Slave for all eternity,” he muttered. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?”

  He rode on, hemmed in by green fields, the rise of hills chased by cloud shadows in light soft as down. Knowing a gallop would have his ribs shrieking, he kept the horse to a plod. He dozed, and he dreamed that he was back on the cliffs struggling with Cian. But this time it was he who tumbled off, spiraling down into the black to crash against the unforgiving rocks.

  He woke with a start, and with the pain. Surely this much pain meant death.

  His horse had stopped to crop at the grass by the side of the road. There a man in a peaked cap built a wall from a pile of steely gray rock. His beard was pointed, yellow as the gorse that rambled over the low hill, his wrists thick as tree limbs.

  “Good day to you, sir, now that you’ve waked to it.” The man touched his cap in salute, then bent for another stone. “You’ve traveled far this day.”

  “I have, yes.” Though he wasn’t entirely sure where he was. There was a fever working in him; he could feel the sticky heat of it. “I’m to An Clar, and the Mac Cionaoith land. What is this place?”

  “It’s where you are,” the man said cheerfully. “You’ll not make your journey’s end by nightfall.”

  “No.” Hoyt looked down the road that seemed to stretch to forever. “No, not by nightfall.”

  “There’d be a cabin with a fire going beyond the field, but you’ve not time to bide here. Not when you’ve so far yet to go. And time shortens even as we speak. You’re weary,” the man said with some sympathy. “But you’ll be wearier yet before it’s done.”

  “Who are you?”

  “Just a signpost on your way. When you come to the second fork, go west. When you hear the river, follow it. There be a holy well near a rowan tree, Bridget’s Well, that some now call saint. There you’ll rest your aching bones for the night. Cast your circle there, Hoyt the Sorcerer, for they’ll come hunting. They only wait for the sun to die. You must be at the well, in your circle, before it does.”

  “If they follow me, if they hunt me, I take them straight to my family.”

  “They’re no strangers to yours. You bear Morrigan’s Cross. It’s that you’ll leave behind with your blood. That and your faith.” The man’s eyes were pale and gray, and for a moment, it seemed worlds lived in them. “If you fail, more than your blood is lost by Samhain. Go now. The sun’s in the west already.”

  What choice did he have? It all seemed a dream now, boiling in his fever. His brother’s death, then his destruction. The thing on the cliffs that called herself Lilith. Had he been visited by the goddess, or was he simply trapped in some dream?

  Maybe he was dead already, and this was merely a journey to the afterlife.

  But he took the west fork, and when he heard the river, turned his horse toward it. Chills shook him now, from the fever and the knowledge that the light was fading.

  He fell from his horse more than dismounted, and leaned breathlessly against its neck. The wound on his hand broke open and stained the bandage red. In the west, the sun was a low ball of dying fire.

  The holy well was a low square of stone guarded by the rowan tree. Others who’d come to worship or rest had tied tokens, ribbons and charms, to the branches. Hoyt tethered his horse, then knelt to take the small ladle and sip the cool water. He poured drops on the ground for the god, murmured his thanks. He laid a copper penny on the stone, smearing it with blood from his wound.

  His legs felt more full of water than bone, but as twilight crept in, he forced himself to focus. And began to cast his circle.

  I
t was simple magic, one of the first that comes. But his power came now in fitful spurts, and made the task a misery. His own sweat chilled his skin as he struggled with the words, with the thoughts and with the power that seemed a slippery eel wriggling in his hands.

  He heard something stalking in the woods, moving in the deepest shadows. And those shadows thickened as the last rays of sunlight eked through the cover of trees.

  They were coming for him, waiting for that last flicker to die and leave him in the dark. He would die here, alone, leave his family unprotected. And all for the whim of the gods.

  “Be damned if I will.” He drew himself up. One chance more, he knew. One. And so he ripped the bandage from his hand, used his own blood to seal the circle.

  “Within this ring the light remains. It burns through the night at my will. This magic is clean, and none but clean shall bide here. Fire kindle, fire rise, rise and burn with power bright.”

  Flames shimmered in the center of his circle, weak, but there. As it rose, the sun died. And what had been in the shadows leaped out. It came as a wolf, black pelt and bloody eyes. When it flung itself into the air, Hoyt pulled his dagger. But the beast struck the force of the circle, and was repelled.

  It howled, snapped, snarled. Its fangs gleamed white as it paced back and forth as if looking for a weakness in the shield.

  Another joined it, skulking out of the trees, then another, another yet, until Hoyt counted six. They lunged together, fell back together. Paced together like soldiers.

  Each time they charged, his horse screamed and reared. He stepped toward his mount, his eyes on the wolves as he laid his hands upon it. This at least, he could do. He soothed, lulling his faithful mare into a trance. Then he drew his sword, plunged it into the ground by the fire.

  He took what food he had left, water from the well, mixed more herbs—though the gods knew his self-medicating was having no good effect. He lowered to the ground by the fire, sword on one side, dagger on the other and his staff across his legs.

  He huddled in his cloak shivering, and after dousing an oatcake with honey, forced it down. The wolves sat on their haunches, threw back their heads, and as one, howled at the rising moon.

  “Hungry, are you?” Hoyt muttered through chattering teeth. “There’s nothing here for you. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a bed, some decent tea.” He sat, the fire dancing in his eyes until they began to close. As his chin drooped to his chest, he’d never felt so alone. Or so unsure of his path.

  He thought it was Morrigan who came to him, for she was beautiful and her hair as bold as the fire. It fell straight as rain, its tips grazing her shoulders. She wore black, a strange garb, and immodest enough to leave her arms bare and allow the swell of her breasts to rise from the bodice. Around her neck she wore a pentagram with a moonstone in its center.

  “This won’t do,” she said in a voice that was both foreign and impatient. Kneeling beside him, she laid her hand on his brow, her touch as cool and soothing as spring rain. She smelled of the forest, earthy and secret.

  For one mad moment, he longed to simply lay his head upon her breast and sleep with that scent filling his senses.

  “You’re burning up. Well, let’s see what you have here, and we’ll make do.”

  She wavered in his vision a moment, then recrystallized. Her eyes were as green as the goddess’s, but her touch was human. “Who are you? How did you get within the circle?”

  “Elderflower, yarrow. No cayenne? Well, I said we’d make do.”

  He watched as she busied herself, as women would, dipping water from the well, heating it with his fire. “Wolves,” she murmured, shivered once. And in that shudder, he felt her fear. “Sometimes I dream of the black wolves, or ravens. Sometimes it’s the woman. She’s the worst. But this is the first time I’ve dreamed of you.” She paused, and looked at him for a long time with eyes of deep and secret green. “And still, I know your face.”

  “This is my dream.”

  She gave a short laugh, then sprinkled herbs in the heated water. “Have it your way. Let’s see if we can help you live through it.”

  She passed her hand over the cup. “Power of healing, herbs and water, brewed this night by Hecate’s daughter. Cool his fever, ease his pain so that strength and sight remain. Stir magic in this simple tea. As I will, so mote it be.”

  “Gods save me.” He managed to prop himself on an elbow. “You’re a witch.”

  She smiled as she stepped to him with the cup. And sitting beside him, braced him with an arm around his back. “Of course. Aren’t you?”

  “I’m not.” He had just enough energy for insult. “I’m a bloody sorcerer. Get that poison away from me. Even the smell is foul.”

  “That may be, but it should cure what ails you.” She simply cradled his head on her shoulder. Even as he tried to push free, she was pinching his nose closed and pouring the brew down his throat. “Men are such babies when they’re sick. And look at your hand! Bloody and filthy. I’ve got something for that.”

 
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