Key of valor, p.27
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       Key of Valor, p.27

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Oh! Oh, of course. How simple.” The knowledge filled her like light, like that lovely gold light, had her spinning so her body pressed against Brad’s, laughing at the sheer joy of it. “How perfect, and how simple. Hurry.”

  She ran, tugging him along the path. One she’d chosen, she thought, and that her child had chosen. One that changed everything, and led toward home.

  “The key.” Tears sparkled on her lashes, and still she laughed as she stepped onto the deck with the man she loved, with her child, with her family. “I know where it is.”

  She kept Brad’s hand in hers as she crossed toward the door.

  The kitchen door, she thought. The one used for family, for friends, for those who lived inside. The everyday door that would never be locked against her.

  Crouching, she lifted the mat. Beneath it, the key was a glint of gold on wood. “Welcome home,” she said softly, and picked it up.

  “It’s my home now, you see?” With the key resting in her palm, she turned to Brad. “I had to believe it, expect it, accept it. All of that. I faced him here, last night, when I was so low, so afraid, so tired. But I faced him, and he couldn’t make me give up. And I found it because I fought for it. And for you, and for myself.”

  She curled her fingers around it. “We’ve beaten him.”

  The wind came up in one, long howl. It raged across the deck with enough force to hurl her back, to slam her down. Through the roar of it, she heard the shouts, the crash of glass.

  She rolled, saw her friends scattered over the deck, saw Brad using his body to protect Simon from flying glass and debris. And saw the blue fog creeping over the ground toward them.

  The key pulsed in her fist, a frantic heartbeat.

  Kane would kill for it, she knew. He would destroy them all to stop that beat. Crawling on her belly, she reached Brad and Simon. “Is he hurt? Baby, are you hurt?”

  “Mom!”

  “He’s all right!” Brad shouted. “Get inside. Get in the house.”

  Her home, she reminded herself grimly. The bastard wouldn’t get inside her home again, would never, never touch what was hers. She slid the key into Brad’s hand, closed his fingers tight around it.

  “Protect them. Get Rowena. Dana and Malory can get Rowena.”

  If she gave them the chance, Zoe thought, and bracing herself, she rolled away and off the deck. She kept her fist closed tight as if she held something precious in it. Ignoring the shouts from behind her, she pushed herself to her feet. Bent double against the fury of the wind, she lurched toward the trees.

  He would come after her, and that would buy time. As long as he believed she had the key, he would focus on her. The others were nothing to him now. Bugs, she reminded herself as she wrapped her arms around a tree trunk to gain her balance. He wouldn’t waste time swatting bugs now.

  Until the key was in the lock, the war wasn’t over, so she would take the battle with her.

  The mists twined around her ankles, seemed to pinch and tug so she panicked enough to kick out and scream. When she fell to her knees again, the stench of it filled her mouth, her lungs. Choking, she dragged herself up and ran.

  The wind wasn’t as fierce now, but the cold—oh, the cold was barbed and ate through the leather of Brad’s jacket, into her sweater, into her flesh. Snow began to fall in fat, dirty flakes.

  He was taking her back to that first illusion. She pressed a hand to her belly half expecting to find it full of child. But she felt only the quiver of her own knotted muscles.

  Kane was toying with her now, she decided. His ego would demand it. Entertaining himself. Certain that he could strike her down at any time, take the key, and win.

  Disoriented, she stumbled through the snow, only praying that she wasn’t somehow circling back toward the house. They needed time. She’d found the key. If they could get it to the Box of Souls, Simon could open it. It had to be true. He was part of her. Her blood, her bone. Her soul.

  Once the lock was open, they would all be safe. She had to keep Kane’s mind off the others until it was done.

  Black lightning shot out of the sky and lanced fire at her feet. She screamed, hurling her body away from the burn of it, gagging on the stink of its smoke.

  When she scrambled up again, he was standing in her path, his black robes swirling inches above the dingy snow.

  “A coward, after all.” The marks from her nails still scored his cheek. “Leaving your own child, your friends, your lover, running like a rabbit to save yourself.”

  She let the tears come, wanting him to see them, mistake them for a plea. And she put her fisted hand behind her back as if hiding something. “Don’t hurt me.”

  “Only hours ago I offered you your heart’s desire. How did you repay me?”

  “You frightened me.” She needed a weapon, but was afraid to take her eyes off his to search for one.

  “You should fear. You should beg. Perhaps if you do, I’ll spare you.”

  “I’ll do whatever you want, if you just leave me alone.”

  “Give me the key of your own will. Come here, place it in my hand.”

  Of her own will, she thought. That was the trick. He couldn’t take it, even now. “If I give it to you, you’ll kill me.”

  “If you don’t . . .” He let the threat lie unspoken. “But if you give it, put it from your hand into mine, I’ll spare your soul. Do you know what it is to live without a soul? To lie frozen and empty for millennia, while your . . . essence is alive and trapped and helpless? Will you risk that for something that has nothing to do with you?”

  She took one step forward as if beaten. “Rowena and Pitte said you couldn’t spill our blood, but you did.”

  “My power grows beyond them. Beyond all.” His pupils seemed to whirl with color as she took the next step. “The king is weak and foolish, hardly more than a mortal in his grief and pain. The war is nearly won. Today it’s finished, and I will rule. All who have fought against me, all who have sought to stop me will pay dearly. My world will be united again.”

  “It’s pain that gives you power. And grief. Is that your soul?”

  “Clever, for a mortal.” he acknowledged. “Dark will always smother the light. I choose its strength, and while those who strive to preserve that light are distracted in battle and politics, in diplomacy and rules of combat, I use the dark. So I am here and do as I will until it is done. What little you, or they, do to stop me is no more than a delay. Now the key.”

  “You can’t have it.”

  Rage exploded through him. She braced as he lifted a hand, prepared to try to duck the blow.

  Brad leaped through the curtain of snow. She saw the glint of a knife, saw it strike, but couldn’t see where. She hurtled forward, then flew back again as Brad was flung out against her.

  “You dare.”

  She saw blood on Kane, bright red against the black. Then Brad shoved her behind him.

  “Do you?” he countered. “Do you dare to fight a man, or can you only take on women?” Brad turned the knife in his hand.

  “Or mortals,” Pitte said and moved through the snow. “Will you battle one of your own, Kane, power to power, god to god?”

  “With pleasure.”

  “Stay back, woman,” Pitte snapped at Rowena even as she moved to stand beside him.

  “Yes.” Kane lifted his arm. “Back.”

  A shock wave struck the air. Zoe was lifted off her feet to tumble through it. She landed hard on her back by the riverbank. Jarred, she rolled over painfully. She saw Brad a few feet away, his mouth bleeding as he crawled toward the knife that had flown out of his hand.

  Nursing her throbbing arm, she pushed herself to her knees. She saw Rowena now, lying still, perhaps dead, in the dirty snow. Whatever force Kane had thrown out, Zoe realized, had been aimed at her.

  Pitte was still on his feet, bleeding, battling. The air sparked and smoked with power, sizzled with light, streaks of dark, and a terrible sound of rending.

  “Stay
down,” Brad ordered, and he spat blood, gripped the knife.

  Though he hurled himself at Kane, the wall of snow and mist repelled him. “Get to the Peak!” he shouted at Zoe. “Get it done.”

  “There’s no time.” Dark smothers the light, she thought as she crawled toward Rowena. She could feel it weighing down, feel it winning. Her fingers trembled as she grabbed Rowena’s hand. It was so cold, but she felt the beat in the wrist.

  A god could breathe, she thought. A god could die.

  She gripped the hand frantically, looking back to where Pitte fell to one knee, spun, and avoided a killing blow by inches.

  “Help me,” Zoe demanded. “Help me stop him.” She dragged Rowena’s head up from the snow, shook her while Brad battered against the wall.

  If she could revive Rowena, and Rowena could add her power to Pitte’s, they could still win. Unwilling to use the snow that Kane had created, Zoe crawled to the river, dipped her hands in for water.

  She saw the reflection in its surface, the young warrior goddess with her face. “Help me,” she said again, plunging her hand into the water.

  And drawing out a sword.

  It gleamed silver in the dull light, and in the wind that whistled over it, it sang. Power, clean as water, ran down its length.

  Gripping the hilt in both hands, Zoe struggled to her feet. And hoisting the sword over her head, she charged. A warrior’s cry ripped from her throat—a sound not completely her own—had Kane spinning toward her.

  There was a jolt, a kind of electric snap, as she burst through the wall. Sparks shot out from the shock of light. There were a thousand screams in her head, the singe of burning along her skin. As Kane threw up his arms to strike, she plunged the blade through his heart.

  The ground heaved under her feet, and her arms shook from the sudden blast of cold. She saw his face change—the fury, the shock, even the fear drowning away as his eyes went red. His jaw lengthened, his cheeks hollowed as the illusion of beauty died.

  His hair grayed and changed into thin coils, and as his lips peeled back she saw teeth as sharp as sabers.

  Though she staggered from the strain, she kept her grip tight on the sword when he fell. Panting, she stood over him and watched a god die.

  He faded into the mist, or it into him, until there was nothing but the shadow of him on the snow. Then the shadow melted and she stood holding a sword with its tip dug into the ground.

  “Well fought, little mother.” His voice riddled with pain, Pitte knelt in front of her, took her hand and kissed her fingers. “I owe you more than my life.”

  “Rowena . . . she’s hurt.”

  “I’ll tend her.” With obvious effort, he got to his feet, then simply smiled when she held out the sword to him. “It belongs to you now,” he said and walked over to cradle his woman.

  “Zoe.” His face smeared with blood, with smoke, Brad touched her hair, her cheek, then with a strangled sound wrapped his arms tight around her. “Zoe.”

  “I’m all right. You’re hurt. Are you hurt? Simon.”

  He tightened his hold as she tried to shove away. “Safe. I promise. I made sure he was safe before I came after you. Trust me.”

  She let the sword drop to the ground and locked her arms around him. “With everything I’ve got.”

  Chapter Twenty

  IT wasn’t the way she’d planned to spend the great American holiday, but it seemed appropriate to celebrate it at Warrior’s Peak.

  The details of transporting everything, dealing with the food, the preparations, calmed her. Though she had expected the key to be the first order of business, Rowena had other ideas.

  “This is an important ritual for you, for your friends.” In the vast dining room Rowena laid plates on the grand table. “It must be observed.”

  “It’s a gorge-fest,” Zoe told her and, unable to help herself, stepped over to stroke Rowena’s hair. “You don’t have to do this. You still look a little pale. We’ve got plenty of hands around here. Why don’t you lie down for a bit?”

  “I want to have a part.” Thoughtfully, Rowena circled a finger around the rim of a plate. “I need time to settle myself, and something to do until my mind’s quiet again. You understand this.”

  “Yeah, I do.” Surprised, and touched, Zoe rubbed Rowena’s arm when she leaned against her.

  “I thought, for a moment, I thought all was lost. His power was so full of hate and fury. I wasn’t prepared for it. Perhaps I couldn’t have been. All I know, all I am . . . but I couldn’t stop him. Even Pitte would have fallen.”

  “He didn’t. We didn’t.”

  “No. I’ve learned a lesson in humility.”

  “Rowena, she gave me the sword. How could that be?”

  “As I miscalculated Kane’s power, so did Kane miscalculate the king’s. His power, his patience, his purpose. He gave you Kyna’s sword, through her image.”

  She began to set the table again. “I’m allowed to see this now. Allowed to see that the battle in my world, for my world, has never ended. Kane gathered strength while we searched here for the chosen. He bargained with the darkest of forces, traded his own soul for power, even as those who followed him used might or intrigue or sabotage to keep the king and those loyal to him focused on maintaining the balance behind the Curtain.”

  Her movements still a bit stiff, Rowena walked around the table. “Much has been lost since we were sent here. But there was never defeat. I feared that,” she said, looking over at Zoe. “Perhaps my fear made me weak when I finally stood against Kane. But my king is not weak. Kane mistook his ability to love, his kindness, and his compassion for weakness and forgot his wisdom and his terrible power.”

  “I saw him,” Zoe said softly. “I saw him, a gold buck with a jeweled collar. This morning, standing outside the house, watching me.”

  “He has watched us all, more closely than I knew. He waited, grieved, fought, planned, three thousand years for the ones who could free his children. You were the only ones who could. I was not shown this until now. All these years, the failures, the preparations, they were all leading to you.”

  Gently, she smoothed a napkin. “If you, any of you, had turned away, there would have been no others. Had I known . . . had I known, I’m not sure I could have borne it. So, I was not to know.”

  Because her legs felt suddenly weak, Zoe reached out to the back of a chair. “That’s a pretty big chance to take with three women in Pennsylvania.”

  Rowena’s lips curved, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I would say the gods chose very well.”

  “The sword . . . I’d already found the key. I’d completed my quest. I understand that Kane tried to stop us from using it, that what had grown in him, or what he’d decided to use, allowed him to try to stop us from using it. But once I found it, the rest was really between the gods, wasn’t it?”

  “You’d done what you were chosen to do,” Rowena agreed.

  “Then why did he give me the sword? Why didn’t he give it to you or Pitte? Or just take Kane out himself?”

  “He would not battle Kane on this field, in this place. For such matters, a champion must be chosen.”

  “Pitte, then, or you.”

  “No.”

  “Why?”

  Tears glimmered in her eyes for an instant, then were gone. When she spoke, her voice was very strong. “Because we are not forgiven.”

  She set the last of the flatware in place, stepped back to study the table. “This is not the time for sorrows. We have much to be thankful for. Tell me—I have spent as little time as possible in kitchens—what comes next?”

  Something had to be done, Zoe thought. But she smiled because she knew Rowena wanted it. “Ever mash potatoes?”

  “No.”

  “Come on. I’ll teach you.”

  THEY gathered around the table with the fire roaring and the candles gleaming. Whatever unhappiness Rowena knew was well masked by laughter and conversation. Champagne sparkled in glasses that were
never empty. Platters and bowls were passed from hand to hand in an endless carousel of abundance.

  “You’ll want plenty of these,” Zoe told Pitte as she offered him the mashed potatoes. “Rowena made them.”

  His eyebrows shot up. “How?”

  “The same way women have been doing it for a number of years.”

  From the other end of the table, Rowena angled her head. “Pitte is now debating whether to risk them. My brave warrior wonders if he’ll be forced to eat paste and pretend it’s ambrosia.”

  As if to demonstrate his bravery, or his love, Pitte piled a small mountain of potatoes on his plate. “You wear his ring,” he said to Zoe, nodded at the diamond on her finger.

  “Yes.” To please herself Zoe wiggled her fingers and watched the ring shoot fire.

  “You are a fortunate man,” he told Bradley.

  “I am. I’ve got to take that ugly midget along with her.” He sent a wink toward Simon. “But I figure she’s worth the sacrifice.”

  “So many weddings,” Rowena announced. “So many plans. Have dates been set?”

  “We’ve been a little busy,” Flynn began.

  Malory fluttered her lashes at him. “We’re not busy now.”

  “Oh.” He lost a little color. “Guess not. Well . . . I don’t know. Um . . .”

  All attention turned to him, had him squirming. “How come it’s my deal? There are three of us in this boat.”

  “Looks like you’re at the wheel, son,” Jordan said and continued to eat turkey.

  “Man. Christmas is coming. We could work with that.”

  “Too soon.” Malory shook her head. “We have—hopefully—the holiday rush at Indulgence to deal with. And I haven’t picked out my dress yet. Then there’s the flowers, the venue, the theme, the—”

  “That should only take three or four years, once you get started. Great potatoes,” Flynn said to Rowena.

  “Thank you.”

  “It certainly won’t take three or four years. I’m a very organized, goal-oriented woman. Just because I want a big wedding and I want it perfect doesn’t mean I can’t pull it together in a reasonable amount of time. You can forget stalling, Hennessy.”

  “Valentine’s Day.”

  “What?”

  There was something wonderful about watching her big blue eyes go blank. “February fourteenth.” Inspired now, he grabbed her hand, kissed it. “Marry me, Malory. Be my valentine.”

  “I think I’m going to be sick,” Jordan grumbled under his breath and got a sharp elbow in the ribs from Dana.

  “Valentine’s Day.” Everything inside Malory melted. “Oh, that’s so perfect. That’s so beautiful. Yes!” She scooted around in her chair to throw her arms around his neck. “And you’ll never have any excuse to forget our anniversary.”

  “Always a catch.”

  “Okay, big guy.” Dana used her elbow again. “Batter up.”

  “What’s wrong with what he said? Except for the gooey parts.”

  “Yes!” Malory erupted again, face glowing. “Let’s do it together. All of us. A triple wedding on Valentine’s Day. It’s perfect. It’s . . . right.”

  “Works for me.” Brad looked at Zoe. “What do you say?”

  “I say it makes a lovely circle.”

  “Do I have to wear a suit?” Simon demanded.

  “Yes,” his mother said definitively.

 
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