Morrigans cross, p.23
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.23

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  cheek was livid. Blood had dried at the corner of her mouth.

  Hoyt gently tested her arm. Not broken, he thought with relief. Badly wrenched, but not broken. Trying not to jar her, he removed her shirt to discover more bruising over her shoulder, her torso, running down to her hip.

  “I know what to get,” Moira said and dashed off.

  “Not broken.” Hoyt’s hands hovered over her ribs. “It’s good there’s nothing broken.”

  “She’s fortunate her head’s still on her shoulders.” Cian went directly to a cabinet, took out whiskey. He drank straight from the bottle.

  “Some of the injuries are inside her. She’s badly injured.”

  “No less than she deserves for going out of the house.”

  “She didn’t.” Moira hurried back in, carrying Glenna’s case. “Not the way you’re meaning.”

  “You don’t expect me to believe King went out, and she leaped to his defense?”

  “He came out for me.” Glenna opened eyes glassy from the pain. “And they took him.”

  “Quiet,” Hoyt ordered. “Moira, I need you here.”

  “We’ll use this.” She selected a bottle. “Pour it on the bruising.” After handing him the bottle, she knelt, rested her hands lightly on Glenna’s torso.

  “What power I can claim I call now to ease your pain. Warmth to heal and harm none, to take away the damage done.” She looked entreatingly at Glenna. “Help me. I’m not very good.”

  Glenna laid her hand over Moira’s, closed her eyes. When Hoyt laid his on top for a triad, Glenna sucked in a breath, let it out on a moan. But when Moira would have yanked her hand away, Glenna gripped it tight.

  “Sometimes healing hurts,” she managed. “Sometimes it has to. Say the chant again. Three times.”

  As Moira obeyed, sweat sprang onto Glenna’s skin, but the bruising faded a little, going the sickly tones of healing.

  “Yes, that’s better. Thanks.”

  “We’ll have some of that whiskey here,” Moira snapped.

  “No. I’d better not.” Trying for steady breaths, Glenna pushed up. “Help me sit. I need to see how bad it is now.”

  “Let’s see about this.” Hoyt skimmed his fingers over her face. And she grabbed his hand. The tears came now, couldn’t be stopped.

  “I’m so sorry.”

  “You can’t blame yourself, Glenna.”

  “Who else?” Cian countered, and Moira shoved up to her feet.

  “He wasn’t wearing the cross.” She dug in her pocket, held it up. “He took it off upstairs and left it behind.”

  “He was showing me some moves. Wrestling,” Larkin explained. “And it got in his way, he said. He must have forgotten about it.”

  “He never meant to go outside, did he? And wouldn’t have but for her.”

  “He was mistaken.” Moira laid the cross on the table. “Glenna, he needs to know the truth. The truth is less painful.”

  “He thought, he must have thought I was going to let her in, or step out. I wasn’t. But I was being cocky, so what’s the difference? Smug. He’s dead because of it.”

  Cian took another drink. “Tell me why he’s dead.”

  “She knocked on the door. I shouldn’t have answered, but I saw it was a woman. A young woman with a map. I wasn’t going out, or asking her in, I swear that to you. She said she was lost. She spoke with an accent, French. Charming, really, but I knew…I felt. And I couldn’t resist toying with her. God, oh God,” she said as more tears spilled. “How stupid. How vain.”

  She took a deep breath. “She said her name was Lora.”

  “Lora.” Cian lowered the bottle. “Young, attractive, French accent?”

  “Yes. You know her.”

  “I do.” He drank again. “I do, yes.”

  “I could see what she was. I don’t know how, but I knew. I should have just shut the door on her. But on the chance I was wrong, I thought I should give her directions and get her moving. I’d just started to when King shouted, and he came running down the hall. I turned around. I was startled, I was careless. She got some of my hair. She pulled me outside by it.”

  “It was so fast,” Moira continued. “I was behind King. I barely saw her move—the vampyre. He went out after them, and there were more. Four, five more. It was like lightning strikes.”

  Moira poured herself a shot of whiskey, downed it to smooth the raw edge of her nerves. “They were on him, all of them, and he shouted for Glenna to get inside. But she got up instead, she got up and ran to help him. It knocked her back, the female of them, like she was a stone in a sling. She tried to help him, even though she was hurt. Maybe she was careless, but so was he.”

  Moira picked up the cross again. “And it’s a terrible price he paid for it. A terrible price he paid for defending a friend.”

  With Hoyt’s help, Glenna got to her feet. “I’m sorry isn’t enough. I know what he meant to you.”

  “You couldn’t possibly.”

  “I think I do, and I know what he meant to the rest of us. I know he’s dead because of me. I’ll live with that all of my life.”

  “So will I. And it’s my bad luck that I’ll live a great deal longer than you.”

  He took the whiskey bottle when he walked out.

  Chapter 16

  In the moment between wake and sleep, there was candlelight, and the bliss of nothing. Easy warmth and sheets scented with lavender, and floating on the comfort of nothing.

  But the moment passed, and Glenna remembered.

  King was dead, hurled into the sea by monsters with the same carelessness of a boy tossing a pebble into a lake.

  She’d gone upstairs alone, by her own request, to seek the solitude and oblivion of sleep.

  Watching the candle flicker, she wondered if she would ever be able to sleep in the dark again. If she would ever be able to see night coming and not think their time was coming with it. To walk in the moonlight without fear? Would she ever know that simplicity again? Or would even a rainy day forever send chills down her spine?

  She turned her head on the pillow. And she saw him silhouetted by the silver light that slid through the window that overlooked his herb garden. Keeping watch in the night, she thought, over her. Over them all. Whatever burdens they all bore, his were heavier. And still he’d come to stand between her and the dark.

  “Hoyt.”

  She sat up as he turned, and she held out her hands to him.

  “I didn’t want to wake you.” He crossed to her, took her hands while studying her face in the dim light. “Are you in pain?”

  “No. No, it’s gone under, at least for now. I have you and Moira to thank for that.”

  “You helped yourself as much as we did. And sleep will help as well.”

  “Don’t go. Please. Cian?”

  “I don’t know.” He sent a troubled look toward the door. “Closed in his rooms with the whiskey.” Looking at her, he brushed back her hair, turning her face to take a closer study at the bruising. “We’re all using what we can tonight, so the pain goes under.”

  “She would never have let him go. She would never have released King. No matter what we’d done.”

  “No.” He eased down to sit on the side of the bed. “Cian must have known that somewhere inside him, but he had to try. We had to try.”

  By pretending to be a bargaining chip, she thought, remembering Hoyt’s explanation of what they’d seen on the cliffs.

  “Now we all know there can be no bargaining in this,” he continued. “Are you strong enough to hear what I have to say?”

  “Yes.”

  “We’ve lost one of us. One of the six we were told we needed to fight this battle, to win this war. I don’t know what it means.”

  “Our warrior. Maybe it means we all have to become warriors. Better ones. I killed tonight, Hoyt—more from luck than skill—but I destroyed what had once been human. I can and will do it again. But with more skill. Every day with more skill. She took one of us, and
she thinks it’ll make us weak and frightened. But she’s wrong. We’ll show her she’s wrong.”

  “I’m to lead this battle. You have great skill in magicks. You’ll work in the tower on weapons, shields, spells. A protective circle to—”

  “Whoa, wait.” She held up a hand. “Am I getting this? I’m consigned to the tower—what, like Rapunzel?”

  “I don’t know this person.”

  “Just another helpless female waiting to be rescued. I’ll work on the magicks, and I’ll work harder and longer. Just like I’ll train harder and longer. But what I won’t do is sit up in the tower day and night with my cauldron and crystals, writing spells while the rest of you fight.”

  “You had your first battle today, and it nearly killed you.”

  “And gave me a lot more respect for what we’re up against. I was called to this, just like the rest of us. I won’t hide from it.”

  “Using your strengths isn’t hiding. I was given the charge of this army—”

  “Well, let me slap some bars on you and call you Colonel.”

  “Why are you so angry?”

  “I don’t want you to protect me. I want you to value me.”

  “Value you?” He shoved to his feet so the red shimmer from the fire washed over his face. “I value you almost more than I can bear. I’ve lost too much already. I’ve watched my brother, the one who shared the womb with me, taken. I’ve stood over the graves of my family. I won’t see you cut down by these things—you, the single light for me in all of this. I won’t risk your life again. I won’t stand over your grave.”

  “But I can risk your life? I can stand over your grave?”

  “I’m a man.”

  He said it so simply, the way an adult might tell a child the sky is blue, that she couldn’t speak for ten full seconds. Then she plopped back against the pillows. “The only reason I’m not working on turning you into a braying jackass this very moment is I’m giving you some slack due to the fact you come from an unenlightened age.”

  “Un…unenlightened?”

  “Let me clue you in to mine, Merlin. Women are equals. We work, we go into combat, we vote, and above all, we make our own decisions regarding our own lives, our own bodies, our own minds. Men don’t rule here.”

  “I’ve never known a world where men rule,” he muttered. “In physical strength, Glenna, you’re not equal.”

  “We make up for it with other advantages.”

  “However keen your minds, your wiles, your bodies are more fragile. They’re made to bear children.”

  “You just gave me a contradiction in terms. If men were responsible for childbearing, the world would’ve ended a long time ago, with no help from a bunch of glory-seeking vampires. And let me point out one little fact. The one causing this whole mess is a female.”

  “Somehow that should be my point.”

  “Well, it’s just not. So forget it. And the one who brought us together is also female, so you’re way outnumbered. And I have more ammo, but this ridiculous conversation is giving me a headache.”

  “You should rest. We’ll talk more of this tomorrow.”

  “I’m not going to rest, and we’re not going to talk about this tomorrow.”

  His single light? he thought. Sometimes she was a beam searing straight into his eyes. “You are a contrary and exasperating woman.”

  “Yes.” Now she smiled, and once more held out her hands. “Sit down here, would you? You’re worried about me, and for me. I understand that, appreciate that.”

  “If you would do this thing for me.” He lifted her hands to his lips. “It would ease my mind. Make me a better leader.”

  “Oh, that’s good.” She drew her hands away to poke him gently in the chest. “Very good. Women aren’t the only ones with wiles.”

  “Not wile, but truth.”

  “Ask me for something else, and I’ll try to give it to you. But I can’t give you this, Hoyt. I worry for you, too, and about you. For all of us. And I question what we can do, what we’re capable of. And I wonder why in all the world—the worlds—we’re the ones who have to do this thing. But none of that changes anything. We are the ones. And we’ve lost a very good man already.”

  “If I lose you…Glenna, there’s a void in me at the very thought of it.”

  Sometimes, she knew, the woman had to be stronger. “There are so many worlds, and so many ways. I don’t think we could ever lose each other now. What I have now is more than I’ve ever had before. I think it makes us better than we were. Maybe that’s part of why we’re here. To find each other.”

  She leaned into him, sighed when his arms encircled her. “Stay with me. Come lie with me. Love me.”

  “You need to heal.”

  “Yes.” She drew him down with her, touched her lips to his. “I do.”

  He hoped he had the tenderness in him that she needed. He wanted to give her that, the magic of it.

  “Slowly then.” He brushed kisses over her cheek. “Quietly.”

  He used just his lips, skimming kisses over her mouth, her face, her throat. Warm and soothing. He brushed away the thin gown she wore to trace those easy kisses over her breasts, over her bruises. In comfort and with care.

  Soft as birds’ wings, lips and fingertips to ease her mind and her body, and to stir them.

  And when their eyes met, he knew more than he’d ever known. Held more than he’d ever owned.

  He lifted her up onto a pillow of air and silver light, making magic their bed. Around the room, the candles came to life with a sound like a sigh. And the light they shed was like melted gold.

  “It’s beautiful.” She took his hands as they floated, closed her eyes on the sumptuous joy of it. “This is beautiful.”

  “I would give you all I have, and still it wouldn’t be enough.”

  “You’re wrong. It’s everything.”

  More than pleasure, more than passion. Did he know what he made of her when he touched her like this? Nothing they faced, no terror or pain, no death or damnation could overcome this. The light inside her was like a beacon, and it would never be dark again.

  Here was life at its sweetest and most generous. The taste of him was a balm to her soul even as his touch roused desires. Steeped in him, she lifted her arms, turned up her palms. Rose petals, white as snow, streamed down like rain.

  She smiled when he slipped into her, when they moved together, silky and slow. Light and air, scent and sensation surrounded the rise and fall of bodies and hearts.

  Once more their fingers meshed, once more their lips met. And as they drifted together, love healed them both.

  In the kitchen, Moira puzzled over a can of soup. No one had eaten, and she was determined to make some sort of meal should Glenna awake. She’d managed the tea, but she’d been shown how to conquer that.

  She’d only watched King open one of the cylinders with the little machine that made the nasty noise. She’d tried and failed three times to make it work, and was seriously considering getting her sword and hacking the cylinder open.

  She had a little kitchen magic—precious little, she admitted. Glancing around to be sure she was alone, she pulled what she had together, and visualized the can open.

  It shimmied a bit on the counter, but remained stubbornly whole.

  “All right, one more time then.”

  She bent down, studied the opener that was attached to the underside of the cupboard. With the proper tools she could take it apart, find out how it worked. She loved taking things apart. But if she had the proper tools, she could just open the bloody cylinder in the first place.

  She straightened, shook her hair back, rolled her shoulders. Muttering to herself, she tried once again to do the deed. This time, when the machine whirled, the can revolved. She clasped her hands together in delight, then bent close again to watch it work.

  It was so clever, she thought. So much here was clever. She wondered if she’d ever be allowed to drive the van. King had said he’d teach her
how it was done.

  Her lips trembled at the thought of it, of him, and she pressed them hard together. She prayed his death had been quick, and his suffering brief. In the morning, she would put up a stone for him in the graveyard she and Larkin had seen when they’d been walking.

  And when she returned to Geall, she would erect another, and ask the harper to write a song for him.

  She emptied the contents into a pot and set it on the burner, turning it on as Glenna had showed her.

  They needed to eat. Grief and hunger would make them weak, and weakness would make them easier prey. Bread, she decided. They would have some bread. It would be a simple meal, but filling.

  She turned toward the pantry, then stumbled back when she saw Cian in the doorway. He leaned against the wall, the nearly empty whiskey bottle dangling from his fingers.

  “Midnight snack?” His teeth showed white with his smile. “I’ve a fondness for them myself.”

  “No one’s eaten. I thought we should.”

  “Always thinking, aren’t you, little queen? Mind’s always going.”

  He was drunk, she could see that. Too much whiskey had dulled his eyes and thickened his voice. But she could also see the pain. “You should sit before you fall over.”

  “Thanks for the kind invitation, in my own bloody house. But I just came down for another bottle.” He shook the one he held. “Someone appears to have made off with this one.”

  “Drink yourself sick if you want to be stupid about it. But you might as well eat something. I know you eat, I’ve seen you. I’ve gone to the trouble to make it.”

  He glanced at the counter, smirked. “You opened a tin.”

  “It’s sorry I am I didn’t have time to kill the fatted calf. So you’ll make do.”

  She turned around to busy herself, then went very still when she felt him behind her. His fingers skimmed the side of her throat, light as a moth’s wings.

  “I’d have thought you tasty once upon a time.”

  Drunk, angry, grieving, she thought. All of those made him dangerous. If she showed him her fear, he’d only be more so. “You’re in my way.”

  “Not yet.”

  “I don’t have time for drunkards. Maybe you don’t want food, but Glenna needs it, for healing strength.”

  “I’d say she’s feeling strong enough.” Bitterness edged his tone as he glanced up. “Didn’t you see the lights brighten a bit ago?”

  “I did. I don’t know what that has to do with Glenna.”

  “It means she and my brother are having a go at each other. Sex,” he said when she looked blank. “A bit of naked, sweaty sex to top off the evening. Ah, she blushes.” He laughed, moved closer. “All that pretty blood just under the skin. Delicious.”

  “Stop.”

  “I used to like when they trembled, the way you are. It makes the blood hotter, and it adds to the thrill. I’d nearly forgotten.”

  “You smell of the whiskey. This is hot enough now. Sit down, and I’ll make a bowl for you.”

  “I don’t want the fucking soup. Wouldn’t mind that hot, sweaty sex, but
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