Morrigans cross, p.22
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.22
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         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts

  Glenna went quickly to the kitchen, gathered bottles. Her arm was screaming, so she quickly did what she could to block the pain. This was Ireland, she thought grimly, and that should mean plenty of churches. In the churches would be holy water. She carried the bottles, along with a butcher knife and a bundle of garden stakes to the van.

  “Glenna.” With a longbow and crossbow slung over her shoulders, two swords in her hand, Moira crossed to the van. She put the weapons inside, then held up one of the silver crosses by its chain.

  “This was up in the training room. I think it must be King’s. He has no protection.”

  Glenna slammed the cargo door. “He has us.”

  Hedgerows and hills were no more than a blur through the gray curtain of rain. Hoyt saw other machines—cars, he reminded himself—traveling the wet road, and the edges of a village.

  He saw cattle in fields, and sheep, and the ramble of stone fences. He saw nothing of Larkin, or the car that held King.

  “Can you track them in this?” he asked Cian.

  “No.” He spun the wheel, sent up a flood of water. “They’ll take him to Lilith. They’ll keep him alive.” He had to believe it. “And take him to Lilith.”

  “The caves?” Hoyt thought how long it had taken him to travel from his cliffs to Clare. But that had been on horseback, and he’d been wounded and feverish. Still the journey would take time. Too much time.

  “Alive? Cian, why will they take him alive?”

  “He’d be a prize to her. That’s what he is, a prize. He’s alive. She’d want the kill for herself. We can’t be that far behind them. Can’t be. And the Jag’s faster than the bloody van they have him in.”

  “He won’t be bitten. The cross will stop that.”

  “It won’t stop a sword or an arrow. A fucking bullet. Guns and bows aren’t the weapons of choice,” he said almost to himself. “Too remote. We like close kills, and some tradition with it. We like to look in the eyes. She’ll want to torture him first. Wouldn’t want it to be quick.” His hands tightened on the wheel enough to bruise the leather. “Should buy us some time.”

  “Night’s coming.”

  What Hoyt didn’t say, and they both knew, was there would be more of them at night.

  Cian swung around a sedan at a speed that had the Jag fishtailing on the slick road, then the tires bit in and he shot forward again. A flash of headlights in his eyes blinded him, but didn’t slow him down. He had a moment to think: bloody tourists, as the oncoming car edged him over. Branches of hedgerows scraped and rattled over the side and windows of the Jag. Loose gravel spat out like stone bullets.

  “We should’ve caught up with them by now. If they took another route, or she’s got another hole…” Too many options, Cian thought, and pushed for more speed. “Can you do anything? A locator spell?”

  “I haven’t any…” He slapped a hand to the dash as Cian shot around another curve. “Wait.” He gripped the cross he wore, pushed power into it. And bearing down, brought its light into his mind.

  “Shield and symbol. Guide me. Give me sight.”

  He saw the cougar, running through the rain, the cross lashing like a silver whip around its throat.

  “Larkin, he’s close. Fallen behind us. Keeping to the fields. He’s tiring.” He searched, feeling with the light as if it were fingers. “Glenna—and Moira with her. They didn’t stay in the house, they’re moving. She’s in pain.”

  “They can’t help me. Where’s King?”

  “I can’t find him. He’s in the dark.”

  “Dead?”

  “I don’t know. I can’t reach him.”

  Cian slammed on the brakes, wrenched the wheel. The Jag went into a sickening spin, revolving closer and closer to the black van that sat across the narrow road. There was a scream of tires and a dull thud as metal slapped metal.

  Cian was out before the motion stopped, sword in hand. When he wrenched open the door of the van he found nothing. And no one.

  “There’s a woman here,” Hoyt called out. “She’s hurt.”

  Cursing, Cian rounded the van, yanked open the cargo doors. There was blood, he saw—human blood by its scent. But not enough for death.

  “Cian, she’s been bitten, but she’s alive.”

  Cian glanced over his shoulder. He saw the woman lying on the road, blood seeping from the punctures in her neck. “Didn’t drain her. Not enough time. Revive her. Bring her around,” Cian ordered. “You can do it. Do it fast. They’ve taken her car, switched cars. Find out what she was driving.”

  “She needs help.”

  “Goddamn it, she’ll live or she won’t. Bring her around.”

  Hoyt laid his fingertips on the wounds, felt the burn. “Madam. Hear me. Wake and hear me.”

  She stirred, then her eyes flew open, the pupils big as moons. “Rory! Rory. Help me.”

  Roughly, Cian shoved Hoyt aside. He had some power of his own. “Look at me. Into me.” He bent close until her eyes were fixed on him. “What happened here?”

  “A woman, the van. Needed help, we thought. Rory stopped. He got out. He got out and they…Oh God, sweet God. Rory.”

  “They took your car. What kind of car was it?”

  “Blue. BMW. Rory. They took him. They took him. No room for you. They said no room and threw me down. They laughed.”

  Cian straightened. “Help me get this van off the road. They were smart enough to take the keys.”

  “We can’t leave her like this.”

  “Then stay with her, but help me move this bloody van.”

  Fury had Hoyt spinning around, and the van jumped three feet across the road.

  “Nice work.”

  “She could die out here. She did nothing.”

  “She won’t be the first or the last. It’s war, isn’t it?” Cian shot back. “She’s what they call collateral damage. Good strategy this,” he mumbled, and took stock. “Slow us down and switch to a faster car. I won’t be catching them now before they reach the caves. If that’s where they’re going.”

  He turned toward his brother, considered. “I may need you now after all.”

  “I won’t leave an injured woman on the side of the road like a sick dog.”

  Cian stepped back to his car, flipped open the center compartment and took out a mobile phone. He spoke into it briefly. “It’s a communication device,” he told Hoyt as he tossed the phone back into storage. “I’ve called for help—medical and the garda. All you’ll do now by staying is get yourself hauled in, and asked questions you can’t answer.”

  He popped the hood, took out a blanket and some flares. “Put that over her,” he instructed. “I’ll set these up. He’s bait now,” Cian added as he set the flares to light. “Bait as much as a prize. She knows we’re coming. She wants us to.”

  “Then we won’t disappoint her.”

  With no hope of cutting off the raiding party before they reached the caves, Cian drove more cautiously. “She was smarter. More aggressive, and more willing to lose troops. So she has the advantage.”

  “We’ll be outnumbered, greatly.”

  “We always would have been. At this point, she may be willing to negotiate. To take a trade.”

  “One of us for King.”

  “You’re all the same to her. A human’s a human, so you have no particular value in this. You perhaps, because she respects and covets power. But she’d want me more.”

  “You’re willing to trade your life for his?”

  “She wouldn’t kill me. At least not right away. She’d want to use her considerable talents first. She’d enjoy that.”

  “Torture.”

  “And persuasion. If she could bring me over to her side, it would be a coup.”

  “A man who trades his life for a friend doesn’t turn and betray him. Why would she think otherwise?”

  “Because we’re fickle creatures. And she made me. That gives her quite a bit of pull.”

  “No, not you. I’d believe you’d trade you
rself for King, but I don’t think she’d believe it. You’ll have to offer me,” Hoyt said after a moment.

  “Oh, will I?”

  “I’ve been nothing to you for hundreds of years. He’s more to you than me. She’d see that. A human for a sorcerer. A good exchange for her.”

  “And why should she think you’d give yourself for a man you’ve known for, what a week?”

  “Because you’d have a knife to my throat.”

  Cian tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “It could work.”

  The rain had passed into dreary moonlight by the time they reached the cliffs. They rose high above the road, jutted out to cast jagged shadows over the toiling sea.

  There was only the sound of the water lashing rock, and the hum of the air that was like the breath of gods.

  There was no sign of another car, of human or of creature.

  Along the seaside of the road was a rail. Below it was rocks, water and the maze of caves.

  “We lure her up.” Cian nodded toward the edge. “If we go down to her, we’re trapped, with the sea at our backs. We go up, make her come to us.”

  They started the climb, over slippery rocks and soggy grass. At the headland stood a lighthouse, its beam lancing out into the dark.

  They both sensed the attack before the movement. The thing sprang out from behind the rocks, fangs bared. Cian merely pivoted, led with his shoulder and sent it tumbling down to the road. For the second, he used the stake he’d hitched in his belt.

  Then he straightened, turned to the third, who appeared more cautious than his fellows.

  “Tell your mistress Cian McKenna wants to speak with her.”

  Vicious teeth gleamed in the moonlight. “We’ll drink your blood tonight.”

  “Or you’ll die hungry, and by Lilith’s hands because you failed to deliver a message.”

  The thing melted away, and down.

  “There may be more waiting above,” Hoyt commented.

  “Unlikely. She’d be expecting us to charge the caves, not head to high ground for a hostage negotiation. She’ll be intrigued, and she’ll come.”

  So they climbed, then walked the slope to higher ground, and the point where Hoyt had once faced Lilith, and the thing she’d made of his brother.

  “She’ll appreciate the irony of the spot.”

  “It feels as it did.” Hoyt tucked his cross out of sight under his shirt. “The air. The night. This was my place once, where I could stand and call power with a thought.”

  “You’d best hope you still can.” Cian drew his knife. “Get on your knees.” He flicked the point at Hoyt’s throat, watched the dribble of blood from the thin slice. “Now.”

  “So, it comes to choices.”

  “It always comes to choices. You would have killed me here, if you could.”

  “I would have saved you here, if I could.”

  “Well, you did neither, did you?” He slid the knife from Hoyt’s sheath, made a V with the blades to hold at his brother’s throat. “Kneel.”

  With the cold edge of the blades on his flesh, Hoyt got to his knees.

  “Well, what a handsome sight.”

  Lilith stepped into the moonlight. She wore emerald green robes with her hair long and loose to spill over her shoulders like sunbeams.

  “Lilith. It’s been a very long time.”

  “Too long.” The silk rustled as she moved. “Did you come all this way to bring me a gift?”

  “A trade,” Cian corrected. “Call your dogs off,” he said quietly. “Or I kill him, then them. And you have nothing.”

  “So forceful.” She gestured with her hand toward the vampires creeping in at the sides. “You’ve seasoned. You were hardly more than a pretty puppy when I gave you the gift. Now look at you, a sleek wolf. I like it.”

  “And still your dog,” Hoyt spat out.

  “Ah, the mighty sorcerer brought low. I like that, too. You marked me.” She opened her robes to show Hoyt the pentagram branded over her heart. “It gave me pain for more than a decade. And the scar never fades. I owe you for that. Tell me, Cian, how did you manage to bring him here?”

  “He thinks I’m his brother. It makes it easy.”

  “She took your life. She’s lies and death.”

  Over Hoyt’s head, Cian smiled. “That’s what I love about her. I’ll give you this one for the human you took. He’s useful to me, and loyal. I want him back.”

  “But he’s so much bigger than this one. So much more to feast on.”

  “He has no power. He’s an ordinary mortal. I give you a sorcerer.”

  “Yet you covet the human.”

  “As I said, he’s of use to me. Do you know how much time and trouble it takes to train a human servant? I want him back. No one steals from me. Not you, not anyone.”

  “We’ll discuss it. Bring him down. I’ve done quite a bit with the caves. We can be comfortable, have a little something to eat. I’ve a very Rubenesque exchange student on tap—Swiss. We can share. Oh, but wait.” She let out a musical laugh. “I’ve heard you dine on pigs’ blood these days.”

  “You can’t trust everything you hear.” Deliberately Cian lifted the knife he’d used to cut Hoyt, flicked his tongue over the bloodied blade.

  That first taste of human after so long a fast reddened his eyes, churned his hunger. “But I haven’t lived so long to be stupid. This is a one-time offer, Lilith. Bring the human to me, and take the sorcerer.”

  “How can I trust you, my darling boy? You kill our kind.”

  “I kill what I like when I like. As you do.”

  “You aligned yourself with them. With humans. Plotted against me.”

  “As long as it amused me. It’s become boring, and costly. Give me the human, take this one. And, as a bonus, I’ll invite you into my home. You can have a banquet on the others.”

  Hoyt’s head jerked, and the blade bit. He cursed, in Gaelic now, with low and steady violence.

  “Smell the power in that blood.” Lilith crooned it. “Gorgeous.”

  “Another step, and I cut the jugular, waste it all.”

  “Would you?” She smiled, beautifully. “I wonder. Is that what you want?” She gestured.

  At the edge of the cliff where the lighthouse stood, Cian could see King slumped between two vampires.

  “He’s alive,” she said lightly. “Of course, you only have my word for it, as I have yours that you’d hand that one to me, like a pretty present all wrapped in shiny paper. Let’s play a game.”

  She held her skirts out, twirled. “Kill him, and I give you the human. Kill your brother, but not with the knives. Kill him as you’re meant to kill. Take his blood, drink him, and the human is yours.”

  “Bring me the human first.”

  She pouted, brushed fussily at her skirts. “Oh, very well.” She lifted one arm high, then the other. Cian eased the knives from Hoyt’s throat as they began to drag King forward.

  They dropped him, and with a vicious kick sent him over the edge.

  “Oops!” Lilith eyes’s danced with merriment as she pressed a hand to her lips. “Butterfingers. I guess you’ll have to pay me back now and kill that one.”

  With a wild roar, Cian charged forward. And she rose up, spreading her robe like wings. “Take them!” she shouted. “Bring them to me.” And was gone.

  Cian switched grips on the knives as Hoyt sprang up, yanking free the stakes shoved into the back of his belt.

  Arrows flew, slicing through air and hearts. Before Cian could strike the first blow, a half dozen vampires were dust, blown out to sea by the wind.

  “More are coming!” Moira shouted from the cover of trees. “We need to go. We need to go now. This way. Hurry!”

  Retreat was bitter, a vile taste burning the back of the throat. But the choice was to swallow death. So they turned from battle.

  When they reached the car, Hoyt reached for his brother’s hand. “Cian—”

  “Don’t.” He slammed in, watched the others
leap into the van. “Just don’t.”

  The long drive home was full of silence, of grief and of fury.

  Glenna didn’t weep. It went too deep for tears. She drove in a kind of trance, her body throbbing with pain and shock, her mind numb with it. And knowing it was cowardice, huddled there.

  “It wasn’t your fault.”

  She heard Moira’s voice, but couldn’t respond to it. She felt Larkin touch her shoulder, she supposed in comfort. But was too numb to react. And when Moira climbed in the back with Larkin to give her solitude, she knew only vague relief.

  She turned into the woods, carefully maneuvered the narrow lane. In front of the house where the lights burned, she shut off the engine, the lights. Reached for the door.

  It flew open, and she was wrenched out, held inches above the ground. Even then, she felt nothing, not even fear as she saw the thirst in Cian’s eyes.

  “Tell me why I shouldn’t break your neck and be done with it.”

  “I can’t.”

  Hoyt reached them first, and was flicked away with a careless backward swipe.

  “Don’t. He’s not to blame. Don’t,” she said now to Hoyt before he could charge again. “Please don’t.” And to Larkin.

  “Do you think that moves me?”

  She looked into Cian’s eyes again. “No. Why should it? He was yours. I killed him.”

  “It wasn’t her doing.” Moira shoved Cian’s arm, but didn’t budge him an inch. “She isn’t to blame for this.”

  “Let her speak for herself.”

  “She can’t. Can’t you see how badly she’s hurt? She wouldn’t let me tend her before we followed you. We need to get inside. If we’re attacked now, we all die.”

  “If you harm her,” Hoyt said quietly, “I’ll kill you myself.”

  “Is that all there is?” Glenna’s words were a weary whisper. “Just death? Is that all there’ll ever be again?”

  “Give her to me.” Hoyt cupped his arms, drew her out of Cian’s grasp. He murmured to her in Gaelic as he carried her into the house.

  “You’ll come, and you’ll listen.” Moira closed a hand around Cian’s arm. “He deserves that.”

  “Don’t tell me what he deserves.” He wrenched free of her with a force that knocked her back two steps. “You know nothing of it.”

  “I know more than you think.” She left him to follow Hoyt into the house.

  “I couldn’t catch them.” Larkin stared at the ground. “I wasn’t fast enough, and I couldn’t catch them.” He yanked open the cargo doors, unloaded weapons. “I can’t turn into one of these.” He slammed the doors again. “It has to be alive, what I become. Even the cougar couldn’t catch them.”

  Cian said nothing, and went inside.

  They had Glenna on the sofa in the main parlor. Her eyes were closed, her face pale, her skin clammy. Against the pallor, the bruising along her jaw and
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