Morrigans cross, p.25
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.25

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  The joy of it spread inside him, warmed as he touched his fingertips to her cheek again. “You would give up your world, all you know? Why?”

  “Because I’ve thought of living five minutes without you, and even that was eternity. I love you.” She saw his eyes change. “Those are the strongest words in any magic. I love you. With that incantation, I already belong to you.”

  “Once I speak it, it’s alive. Nothing can ever kill it.” Now he framed her face. “Would you have me if I stayed here with you?”

  “But you said—”

  “Would you have me, Glenna?”

  “Yes, of course, yes.”

  “Then we’ll see which world is ours when this is done. Wherever, whenever it is, I will love you in it. You.” He touched his lips to hers. “And only you.”

  “Hoyt.” Her arms came hard around him. “If we have this, we can do anything.”

  “I haven’t said it yet.”

  She laughed, rained kisses over his cheeks. “Close enough.”

  “Wait.” He drew her back, just an inch. Those vivid blue eyes locked with hers. “I love you.”

  A single beam of light shot out of the sky, washed over them, centered them in a circle of white.

  “So it’s done,” he murmured. “Through this life and all the ones to come, I’m yours. And you’re mine. All that I am, Glenna.”

  “All that I’ll be. I pledge that to you.” She held close again, pressed her cheek to his. “Whatever happens, this is ours.”

  She tipped back her head so their lips could meet. “I knew it would be you,” she said softly, “from the moment I walked into your dream.”

  They held each other in the circle of light, held close while it bathed them. When it faded, and twilight oozed over the day, they gathered the rest of the weapons, and took them into the house together.

  Cian watched them from his bedroom window. Love had flashed and shimmered around them in a light that had all but burned his skin, seared his eyes.

  And it had pressed against a heart that hadn’t beat in nearly a thousand years.

  So his brother had fallen, he thought, for the single blow against which there was no shield. Now they would live their short and painful lives within that light.

  Perhaps it would be worth it.

  Then he stepped back into the shadows of his room, and the cool dark.

  When he came down, it was full dark, and she was in the kitchen alone. Singing at the sink, Cian noted, in an absent and happy voice. The sort, he decided, that a fanciful person would say had little pink hearts spilling out from between her lips with the tune.

  She was loading the dishwasher—a homey chore. And the kitchen smelled of herbs and flowers. Her hair was bundled up, and now and then her hips moved with the rhythm of the song.

  Would he have had a woman like that if he’d lived? he wondered. One who’d sing in the kitchen, or stand in the light, looking at him with her face alive with love?

  He’d had women, of course. Scores of them. And some had loved him—to their loss, he supposed. But if their faces had been alive with that love, those faces were a blur to him now.

  And love was a choice he had eliminated from his life.

  Or had told himself he had. But the fact was he had loved King, as a father does a son, or a brother a brother. The little queen had been right about that, and damn her for it.

  He had given his love and his trust to a human, and as humans were wont to do, it had died on him.

  Saving this one, he thought now as Glenna set dishes in the rack. Another thing humans had a habit of doing was sacrificing themselves for other humans.

  It was, or had been, a trait that had intrigued him often enough. Easier to understand, in his circumstances, their habit on the other side of the coin—of killing each other.

  Then she turned, and jolted. The dish she held slipped out of her hands and shattered on the tiles.

  “God. I’m sorry. You startled me.”

  She moved quickly—and jerkily, he noted, for a woman of easy grace. She took the broom and dustpan from the closet, and began to sweep the shards.

  He hadn’t spoken to her, nor to any of the others, since the night of King’s death. He’d left them to train themselves, or do as they pleased.

  “I didn’t hear you come in. The others finished dinner. They—they went up to do some training. I had Hoyt out for an hour or so today. Um, driving lesson. I thought…” She dumped the shards, turned again. “Oh God, say something.”

  “Even if you live, you’re from two different worlds. How will you resolve it?”

  “Did Hoyt speak to you?”

  “He didn’t have to. I have eyes.”

  “I don’t know how we’ll resolve it.” She put the broom away. “We’ll find a way. Does it matter to you?”

  “Not in the least. It’s of interest to me.” He got a bottle of wine from the counter rack, studied the label. “I’ve lived among you for a considerable amount of time. Without interest, I’d have died of boredom long ago.”

  She steadied herself. “Loving each other makes us stronger. I believe that. We need to be stronger. So far, we haven’t done very well.”

  He opened the wine, got down a glass. “No, you haven’t done very well, particularly.”

  “Cian,” she said as he turned to go. “I know you blame me for King. You have every right to—to blame me and to hate me for it. But if we don’t find a way to work together, to mesh, he won’t just be the only one of us to die. He’ll just be the first.”

  “I beat him to that by a few hundred years.” He tipped the glass toward her in a kind of salute, then walked out with the bottle.

  “Well, that was useless,” Glenna muttered, and turned back to finish the dishes.

  He would hate her, she thought, and likely hate Hoyt as well because Hoyt loved her. Their team was fractured even before it had a genuine chance to become a unit.

  If they had time, nothing but time, she would let it lie, wait until Cian’s resentment cooled, began to fade. But they didn’t have that luxury of wasting any more of the precious little time they’d been given. She’d have to find a way to work around it, or him.

  She dried her hands, flung the cloth down.

  There was a thump outside the back door, as if something heavy had fallen. Instinctively she stepped back, reached for the sword braced against the counter, and one of the stakes lying on it.

  “They can’t get in,” she whispered, and even the whisper shook. “If they want to spy on me while I’m cleaning up the kitchen, so what?”

  But she wished she and Hoyt had had better luck devising a spell to create a protected area around the house.

  Still, she couldn’t let it frighten her, wouldn’t let it. She certainly wasn’t going to open the door again to have a chat with something that wanted to rip her throat out.

  But there came a kind of scratching, low on the door. And a moan. And the hand gripping the sword went damp with sweat.

  “Help me. Please.”

  The voice was weak, barely audible through the wood. But she thought…

  “Let me in. Glenna? Glenna? In the name of God, let me in before they come.”

  “King?” The sword clattered on the floor as she leaped toward the door. Still, she held the stake in a firm grip.

  Fool me once, she thought, and kept well out of reach as she opened the door.

  He lay on the stones just outside, his clothes bloody and torn. More blood had dried on the side of his face, and his breathing was a thin wheeze.

  Alive, was all she could think.

  She started to crouch down, pull him inside, but Cian was beside her. He shoved her aside, lowered down himself. Laid a hand on King’s battered cheek.

  “We need to get him in. Hurry, Cian! I’ve got things that can help.”

  “They’re close. Tracking me.” He groped blindly for Cian’s hand. “I didn’t think I’d make it.”

  “You have. Come inside now.” He
gripped King under the arms, dragged him into the kitchen. “How did you get away?”

  “Don’t know.” King sprawled on the floor, eyes closed. “Missed the rocks. Thought I’d drown, but…I got out, got out of the water. Hurt pretty bad. Passed out, don’t know how long. Walked, walked all day. Hid at night. They come at night.”

  “Let me see what I can do for him,” Glenna began.

  “Close the door,” Cian told her.

  “Did everybody make it? Did everybody…thirsty.”

  “Aye, I know.” Cian gripped his hand, looked into his eyes. “I know.”

  “We’ll start with this.” Glenna mixed something briskly in a cup. “Cian, if you’d go get the others. I could use Hoyt and Moira. We’ll want to get King into bed, make him comfortable.”

  She bent to him as she spoke, and the cross around her neck dangled down, swung toward King’s face.

  He hissed like a snake, bared fangs and skuddled back.

  Then to Glenna’s horror, he got to his feet. And grinned.

  “You never told me how it felt,” he said to Cian.

  “Words fall short. It needs to be experienced.”

  “No.” Glenna could only shake her head. “Oh God, no.”

  “You could’ve taken me here a long time ago, but I’m glad you didn’t. I’m glad it was now, when I’m in my prime.”

  King circled around as he spoke, blocking the door out of the kitchen. “They hurt me first. Lilith—she knows amazing ways to give pain. You know you don’t stand a chance against her.”

  “I’m sorry,” Glenna whispered. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be. She said I could have you. Eat you or change you. My choice.”

  “You don’t want to hurt me, King.”

  “Oh yes, he does,” Cian said easily. “He wants the pain in you nearly as much as he wants your blood in his throat. It’s how he’s made. Had she already given you the gift before they threw you off the cliff?”

  “No. I was hurt though, hurt bad. Could hardly stand. They had a rope around me when they tossed me off. If I lived, she’d give me the gift. I lived. She’ll take you back,” he said to Cian.

  “Yes, I know she will.”

  Glenna looked from one to the other. Trapped, she realized, between them. He’d known—she saw that now. Cian had known what King was before he’d let him in the house.

  “Don’t do this. How can you do this? To your brother.”

  “I can’t have him,” King told Cian. “Neither can you. She wants Hoyt herself. She wants to drink him, the sorcerer. With his blood, she’ll ascend even higher. Every world there is will be ours.”

  The sword was too far away, and she no longer had the stake. She had nothing.

  “We’re to take Hoyt and the other female to her, alive. This one, and the boy? They’re ours if we want them.”

  “I haven’t drunk human blood for a very long time.” Cian reached over, trailed a fingertip down the nape of Glenna’s neck. “This one, I’d think, would be heady.”

  King licked his lips. “We can share her.”

  “Yes, why not?” He tightened his grip on Glenna, and when she fought, when she sucked in her breath, he laughed. “Oh aye, scream for help. Bring the others on down to save you. It’ll save us the trip up.”

  “Rot in hell. I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she said to King as he moved toward her. “Sorry for any part I played in it. But I won’t make it easy for you.”

  She used Cian as a brace, swung up her legs and kicked out. She knocked King back a few steps, but he only laughed and moved toward her again.

  “They let them run in the caves. So we can chase them. I like when they run. When they scream.”

  “I won’t scream.” She rammed back with her elbows, kicked out again.

  She heard the rush of footsteps, and thought only, No! So screamed after all as she kicked and struggled.

  “The cross. I can’t get past the fucking cross. Knock her out!” King demanded. “Get it off her. I’m hungry!”

  “I’ll fix it.” He tossed Glenna aside as the others rushed into the room.

  And looking into King’s eyes, drove the stake he’d had at his back into his friend’s heart.

  “It’s all I could do for you,” he told him, and tossed the stake aside.

  “King. Not King.” Moira dropped to her knees beside the dust. Then she laid her hands on it, spoke in a voice choked with tears. “Let what he was, the soul of him and the heart, be welcomed in a world again. The demon that took him is dead. Let him have light to find his way back.”

  “You won’t raise a man from a pile of ash.”

  She looked up at Cian. “No, but maybe free his soul so it can be reborn. You didn’t kill your friend, Cian.”

  “No. Lilith did.”

  “I thought…” Glenna still shook as Hoyt helped her to her feet.

  “I know what you thought. Why shouldn’t you?”

  “Because I should have trusted you. I’ve said we aren’t a unit, but I didn’t understand I’m as much to blame for that as any. I didn’t trust you. I thought you’d kill me, but you chose to save me.”

  “You’re wrong. I chose to save him.”

  “Cian.” She stepped toward him. “I caused this. I can’t—”

  “You didn’t, no. You didn’t kill him, you didn’t change him. Lilith did. And sent him here to die once more. He was new, and not yet used to his skin. Injured as well. He couldn’t have taken all of us, and she knew it.”

  “She knew what you would do.” Hoyt moved to his brother’s side, laid a hand on his shoulder. “And what it would cost you.”

  “In her way, she couldn’t lose. So she’d think. I don’t kill him, he takes at least one of you—maybe the lot if I turn. If I go the other way, destroy him, it costs me…oh quite a bit, quite a lot indeed.”

  “The death of a friend,” Larkin began, “is a hard death. We all feel it.”

  “I believe you do.” He looked down to where Moira still knelt on the floor. “But it comes to me first because he was mine first. She did this to him not because of you,” he said to Glenna. “But because of me. I could’ve blamed you, and did, if she’d just killed him. Clean. But for this, it’s not yours. It’s hers and it’s mine.”

  He walked over to pick up the stake he used, studied the killing point. “And when it comes time, when we face her, she’s mine. If any of you step up to do the killing blow, I’ll stop you. So you see, she miscalculated. I owe her for this, and I’ll give her death for it.”

  Now, he picked up the sword. “We train tonight.”

  She trained, going one-on-one with Larkin, sword to sword. Cian had paired Moira with Hoyt, and stood back, or moved around them as steel clashed. He called out insults, which Glenna assumed was his style of motivation.

  Her arm ached, and her still tender ribs throbbed. While sweat dribbled down her back, into her eyes, she continued to push. The pain, the effort, helped block out the image of King in the kitchen, moving toward her with fangs ready.

  “Keep your arm up,” Cian shouted at her. “If you can’t hold a shagging sword properly you won’t last five minutes. And stop dancing with her, for Christ’s sake, Larkin. This isn’t a bloody nightclub.”

  “She isn’t fully healed,” Larkin snapped back. “And what the hell’s a nightclub?”

  “I need to stop.” Moira lowered her sword, wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her free hand. “Rest for a moment.”

  “You don’t.” Cian spun toward her. “Do you think you’re doing her a favor, asking to rest? Do you think they’ll be agreeable to a bloody time out just because your pal here needs to catch her breath?”

  “I’m fine. There’s no need to snap at her.” Glenna struggled to catch her breath, to will some strength back into her legs. “I’m fine. Stop holding back,” she told Larkin. “I don’t need to be coddled.”

  “She needs to be looked at.” Hoyt gestured Larkin back. “It’s too soon for her to tr
ain like this.”

  “That isn’t for you to say,” Cian pointed out.

  “I am saying it. She’s exhausted, and she’s in pain. And that’s enough.”

  “I said I’m fine, and can speak for myself. Which, though he enjoys being a bastard, is what your brother pointed out. I don’t need or want you to speak for me.”

  “Then you’ll have to grow accustomed to it, because so I will when you need it.”

  “I know what I need and when I need it.”

  “Maybe the two of you will just talk the enemy to death,” Cian said dryly.

  Out of patience, Glenna thrust at Cian with her sword. “Come on. Come on then, you and me. You won’t hold back.”

  “No.” He tapped his blade to hers. “I won’t.”

  “I said enough.” Hoyt slashed his sword between them, and his fury sent a ripple of fire down the steel.

  “Which one of us would you like to take on?” Now Cian’s tone was like silk. And his eyes darkened with a dangerous pleasure when Hoyt pivoted toward him.

  “Should be interesting,” Larkin said, but his cousin stepped in.

  “Wait,” she said. “Just wait. We’re upset, all of us. Tired out, and overheated like horses at too long a gallop on top of it. It serves no purpose to hurt each other. If we won’t rest, then at least, let’s have the doors open. Have some air.”

  “You want the doors open?” Everything about him suddenly genial, Cian cocked his head. “A bit of air’s what you’re wanting? Sure we’ll have ourselves some fresh air.”

  He strode to the terrace doors, threw them open. Then in a move fast as a fingersnap, reached out into the dark. “Come in, won’t you?” he said and yanked a pair of vampires through the doorway.

  “Plenty to eat here.” He wandered to the table as both of them leaped up, drew swords. With the tip of his own he speared an apple from the bowl. Then leaned back against the wall, plucking it off to have a bite.

  “Let’s see what you can do with them,” he suggested. “It’s two against one, after all. You may just have a shot at surviving.”

  Hoyt pivoted, instinctively putting Glenna behind him. Larkin was already moving in, flashing his sword. His opponent blocked the slash easily, punched out with its free hand and sent Larkin flying halfway across the room.

  It turned, rushed Moira. The first strike hit her sword, and the force knocked her down, sent her skidding over the floor. She groped desperately for her stake as it flew—seemed to fly—through the air toward her.

  Glenna buried her terror, dug out her fury. She shot her power out—the first learned, the last lost—and brought the fire. The vampire burst into flames midair.

  “Nicely done, Red,” Cian commented, and watched his brother battle for his life.

  “Help him. Help me.”

  “Why don’t you?”

  “They’re too close to risk the fire.”

  “Try this.” He tossed her a stake, took another bite of apple.

  She didn’t think, couldn’t think, as she ran forward. As she plunged the stake into the back of the vampire who’d beaten Hoyt to his knees.

  And missed the heart.

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