Morrigans cross, p.29
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.29
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         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts

  The wizard seemed to be on the intense side. Did a lot of watching, didn’t have a lot to say. She could respect that. Just as she could, and did, respect the power he wore like skin.

  As for the vampire, she was in a holding pattern there. He would be a formidable ally, or foe—and to date, she’d never considered a vamp any kind of ally. Still, she’d seen something in his face when his brother had spoken of Nola. It had been pain.

  The other woman was quiet as a mouse. Watchful, oh yeah, and a little on the soft side yet. She hadn’t made up her mind about Blair any more than Blair had about her.

  And the guy? Larkin. Some serious eye-candy. He had a good, athletic build that should make him an asset in a fight. Boiling with energy, too, she thought. The shape-shifting deal could come in handy, if he was any good at it. She’d have to ask for a demo.

  It was a lot—they were a lot—to whip into shape in a very short time. She’d have to be up to it if any of them were going to make it out of this alive.

  But for now, it was nice to take a morning stroll through the trees, listening to the water sing, watching the light dance.

  She skirted around a rock, cocked her head at what was curled sleeping under its shadow.

  “This is your morning wake-up call,” she said, and pulled the trigger on the crossbow she carried.

  The vampire barely had time to open its eyes.

  She retrieved the arrow, set it again.

  She took out three more, disturbing another who sprinted off down the path, dodging beams of thin sunlight. Without a clear shot, and unwilling to waste an arrow, she took off after him.

  The horse leaped onto the path, a gleaming black beast, with the gilded god on its back. Larkin sliced down with his sword, and beheaded the fleeing vampire.

  “Nice job,” she called out.

  Through streams of sunlight, Larkin trotted the horse toward her. “What are you doing out here?”

  “Killing vampires. You?”

  “The horse needed a run. You shouldn’t be out here alone, so far from the house.”

  “You are.”

  “They couldn’t catch this one.” He patted Vlad on the neck. “He’s the wind. So then, how many have you seen?”

  “The four I killed, and yours makes five. There are probably more.”

  “Four others, you say? Aren’t you the busy one. Do you want to hunt them now?”

  He looked up to it, but she couldn’t be sure. Working with an unknown partner was a good way to die, even if that partner showed a wicked skill with a sword. “That should do it for now. One of them, at least, will run back to Mommy and report we’re taking them out of their nests during the day. Should tick her off.”

  “Tick?”

  “Annoy her.”

  “Ah. Aye, there’s that.”

  “Anyway, we need to do some training so I can see what you’re made of.”

  “You can see?”

  “I’m your new sergeant.” She could see he wasn’t thrilled with that news—and who could blame him? But she held up a hand. “How about a lift, cowboy?”

  He reached down, and with a clasp of hands to forearms, she vaulted up behind him.

  “How fast will this guy move?” she asked.

  “You’d best hold on, and tight.”

  A tap of his heels sent the horse flying.

  Glenna rubbed her thumb and finger together over the cauldron to add another pinch of sulfur to the mix. “A little at a time,” she said absently to Hoyt. “We don’t want to overdo it and end up—”

  She jerked back as the liquid flashed.

  “Mind your hair,” Hoyt warned.

  She grabbed some pins, bundled it hastily on top of her head. “How’s it coming there?”

  Inside the metal trough, the dagger continued to burn. “The fire’s still unstable. We have to tame it or we’ll burn ourselves as well as vampyres.”

  “It’s going to work.” She took a sword, slid it into the liquid. Stepping back, she held her hands in the smoke and began her chant.

  He stopped what he was doing to watch her, to study the beauty that came into her with the magic. What had his life been before she’d come into it? With no one with whom he could fully share what he was, not even Cian? With no one to look into his eyes in a way that made his heart shine?

  Fire licked at the edges of the cauldron, shimmied up the sword, and still she stood, in the smoke and the flame. Her voice like music, her power like dance.

  When the flames died, she removed the sword with tongs, set it aside to cure and cool.

  “Each has to be done separately. I know it’s going to take time, days, but in the end…what?” she said when she caught him staring at her. “Have I got magic soot all over my face?”

  “No. You’re beautiful. When will you marry me?”

  She blinked in surprise. “I thought after, when it’s over.”

  “No, I don’t want to wait. Every day is a day less, and every day is precious. I want us to be married here, in this house. Before long, we’ll travel to Geall, and then…It should be here, Glenna, in the home we’ll make.”

  “Of course it should. I know your family can’t be here, except for Cian and Blair. Neither can mine. But when it’s over, Hoyt. When everyone’s safe again, I’d like another ritual here, I’d like my family here then.”

  “A handfasting now, a wedding ceremony after. Would that suit?”

  “Perfect. I’d—now? As in now? I can’t be ready now. I have to…do things first. I need a dress.”

  “I thought you preferred your rituals skyclad.”

  “Very funny. A few days. Say the coming full moon.”

  “The end of the first month.” He nodded. “It seems right. I want to—what is all that shouting?”

  They walked to the window to see Blair going toe-to-toe with Larkin. Moira stood, hands fisted on her hips.

  “Speaking of rituals,” Glenna commented. “Looks like the head-butting portion of the daily training’s started without us. We’d better get down there.”

  “She’s slow and she’s sloppy, and slow and sloppy get you dead.”

  “She’s neither,” Larkin shot back at Blair. “But her strengths lie in her bow and in her mind.”

  “Great, she can think a vamp to death. Let me know how that works out. As for the bow, yeah, eye like an eagle, but you can’t always kill at a distance.”

  “I can speak for myself well enough, Larkin. And you—” Moira jabbed a finger at Blair. “I don’t care to be spoken to as if I were addle-brained.”

  “I’ve got no problem with your brain, but I’ve got a big one with your sword arm. You fight like a girl.”

  “So I am.”

  “Not during training, not during battle. Then you’re a soldier, and the enemy doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your plumbing.”

  “King had her working on her strengths.”

  “King’s dead.”

  There was a moment of utter silence that couldn’t have been sliced through with Cian’s battle-ax. Then Blair sighed. That, she could admit, had been unnecessarily harsh.

  “Look, what happened to your pal is terrible. I sure as hell don’t want it to happen to me. If you don’t want it to happen to you, you’ll work on your weaknesses—and you’ve got plenty. You can play with your strengths on your own time.”

  She planted her feet as Hoyt and Glenna came to join them. “Did you put me in charge of this?” Blair demanded.

  “I did,” Hoyt affirmed.

  “And we’ve nothing to say about it?” Fury tightened Larkin’s face. “Nothing at all?”

  “You don’t, no. She’s the best for it.”

  “Because she’s your blood.”

  Blair rounded on Larkin. “Because I can put you on your ass in five seconds flat.”

  “Sure of that, are you?” He shimmered and changed, and the wolf he became crouched and snarled.

  “Excellent,” Blair said under her breath, with temper smothered by pur
e admiration.

  “Oh, Larkin, leave off, would you?” Obviously out of patience, Moira slapped a hand at him. “He’s only angry because you were rude to me. And you’ve no cause to be so insulting. It happens I agree with you about working on the weaknesses.” And Cian had said the same, Moira recalled. “I’m willing to practice, but I won’t be after standing and being berated while I’m about it.”

  “More flies with honey than vinegar?” Blair said. “I always wondered why the hell anyone would want to catch flies. Look, you and I can paint our toenails and talk about boys when we’re off the clock. While I’m training you, I’m the bitch because I want you alive. Does it hurt when you do that?” Blair asked Larkin when he changed back. “Shifting bones and organs and so on?”

  “Some actually.” He couldn’t recall anyone ever asking him. His temper cooled as quickly as it had flared. “But it’s fun, so I don’t mind so much.”

  He slung his arm around Moira’s shoulder, gave her arm a little rub as he spoke to Hoyt and Glenna. “Your girl here took out four of them in the forest. I took a fifth myself.”

  “This morning? Five?” Glenna stared at Blair. “How close to the house?”

  “Close enough.” Blair glanced toward the woods. “Lookouts, I figure, and not very good ones. Caught them napping. Lilith’s going to get word of it. She’s going to be unhappy.”

  It wasn’t a matter of killing the messenger; not in Lilith’s long-standing opinion. It was a matter of killing it as painfully as possible.

  The young vampire who’d foolishly gone back to the nest after Blair’s morning foray was now on a slow roast, belly-down, over a simmering fire. The smell wasn’t particularly pleasant, but Lilith understood command required certain sacrifices.

  She circled him now, careful to keep the hem of her red gown away from the lick of flames. “Why don’t we go over this again?” Her voice was melodious, somewhat like a devoted teacher speaking to a favored student. “The human—female—destroyed everyone I’d posted, save you.”

  “The man.” Pain turned the words to guttural rasps. “The horse.”

  “Yes, yes. I keep forgetting the man and the horse.” She stopped to study the rings she wore. “The one who came along after she’d already cut down—what was it now—four of you?”

  She crouched down, a spider of stunning beauty, to stare into his red, wheeling eyes. “And she was able to do this because? Wait, wait, I remember. Because you were sleeping?”

  “They were. The others. I was at post, Majesty. I swear it.”

  “At post, and yet, this single female human lives. Lives because—do I have this detail correct? Because you ran?”

  “Came back…to report.” Its sweat dripped into the fire, and sizzled. “The others, they ran away. They ran. I came to you.”

  “So you did.” She tapped him playfully on the nose with each word, then rose. “I suppose I should reward your loyalty.”

  “Mercy. Majesty, mercy.”

  She turned around with a silky rustle of skirts to smile at the boy who sat cross-legged on the floor of the cave, systematically ripping the heads off a pile of Star Wars action figures.

  “Davey, if you break all your toys, what will you have to play with?”

  His lips moved to pout as he beheaded Anikin Skywalker. “They’re boring.”

  “Yes, I know.” She ran a loving hand over his sunny hair. “And you’ve been cooped up too long, haven’t you?”

  “Can we go outside now?” He bounced, and his eyes went round and wide at the prospect of a promised treat. “Can we go outside and play? Please!”

  “Not quite yet. Now don’t sulk.” She tipped his chin up to peck a kiss on his lips. “What if your face froze like that? Here now, my sweet boy, what if I gave you a brand-new toy?”

  Round cheeks bright with temper, he snapped Han Solo in two. “I’m tired of toys.”

  “But this will be a new one. Something you’ve never had before.” She turned her head, and with her finger still on his chin, turned his until they both looked at the vampire over the fire pit.

  And on the spit, seeing their eyes, it began to struggle and thrash. And weep.

  “For me?” Davey said brightly.

  “All for you, my own dumpling. But you must promise Mama not to get too close to the fire. I don’t want you burned, my precious one.” She kissed his little fingers before she rose.

  “Majesty, I beg you! Majesty, I came back to you.”

  “I dislike failure. Be a good boy, Davey. Oh, and don’t spoil your dinner.” She gestured to Lora, who stood quietly by the door.

  The screams began before it was closed behind them. And locked.

  “The Hunter,” Lora began. “It had to be. None of the other women have the skill to—”

  A single look from Lilith silenced her. “I haven’t given you leave to speak. My fondness for you is all there is between you and the pit. And my affections only go so far.”

  Lora bowed her head in deference and followed Lilith into the adjoining chamber. “You lost three of my good men. What can you say to that?”

  “I have no excuse.”

  With a nod, Lilith roamed the chamber, idly picking a ruby necklace from the top of a chest. The single thing she missed of life was mirrors. She longed, even after two millennia, to see herself reflected. To be wooed by her own beauty. She had hired—and fed on—countless sorcerers, witches and magicians over the centuries to make it so.

  It was her greatest failure.

  “You’re wise not to offer one. I’m a patient woman, Lora. I’ve waited more than a thousand years for what’s coming. But I won’t be insulted. I dislike having these people pick and pluck us off like flies.”

  She threw herself into a chair, tapped her long red nails on its arms. “Speak, then. Tell me about this new one. This Hunter.”

  “As the seers prophesied, my lady. The warrior of old blood. One of the hunters who has plagued our kind for centuries.”

  “And you know this because?”

  “She was too fast to be a mere human. Too strong. She knew what they were before they moved on her that night, and she was ready. She completes their number. The first stage is set.”

  “My scholars said the black man was their warrior.”

  “They were wrong.”

  “Then what good are they?” Lilith heaved the necklace she still toyed with across the room. “How can I rule when I’m surrounded by incompetence? I want what’s due me. I want blood and death and beautiful chaos. Is it too much to ask that those who serve me be accurate on the details?”

  For nearly four hundred years Lora had been by Lilith’s side. Friend, lover, servant. No one, she was sure, knew the queen better. She poured a glass of wine, carried it to the chair.

  “Lilith.” She said it gently, offering both it and a kiss. “We’ve lost nothing important.”

  “Face.”

  “No, not even that. They only believe what they’ve done in these past weeks matters. It’s good they do, because it makes them overconfident. And we killed Cian’s boy, didn’t we?”

  “We did.” Lilith pouted another moment, then sipped. “There was satisfaction in that.”

  “And sending him to them only demonstrated your brilliance, and your strength. Let them take dozens of the meaningless foot soldiers. We cut their heart.”

  “You’re a comfort to me, Lora.” Drinking her wine, Lilith stroked Lora’s hand. “And you’re right, of course, you’re right. I’m disappointed, I admit. I so wanted to break their number, to foil the prophecy.”

  “But it’s better this way, isn’t it? And it’ll be the sweeter when you take them all.”

  “Better, yes, better. And yet…I think we need to make a statement. It would improve my mood, and morale as well. I have an idea. I’ll think it through a bit.” She watched the wine swirl in her glass. “One day, one day soon, this will be the sorcerer’s blood. I’ll drink it from a silver cup, and nibble on sugar plums between sips.
All that he is will be in me, and all that I am will make even the gods tremble.

  “Leave me now. I need to plan.”

  As Lora rose to go to the door, Lilith tapped on her glass. “Oh, and this irritating business has made me hungry. Bring me someone to eat, will you?”

  “Right away.”

  “Make sure it’s fresh.” Alone she closed her eyes and began to plot. While she plotted, the screams and squeals from the next chamber battered the cave walls.

  Her lips curved. Who could be blue, she thought, with a child’s laughter ringing in the air?

  Moira sat cross-legged on Glenna’s bed and watched Glenna work on the magic little machine she called a laptop. Moira was desperate to get her hands on it. There were worlds of knowledge inside, and so far she’d only been allowed a few peeks.

  She’d been promised a lesson, but just at the moment, Glenna seemed so absorbed—and they only had an hour free.

  So she cleared her throat.

  “What do you think of this one?” Glenna asked and tapped the image of a woman wearing a long white dress.

  Angling her head for a better view, Moira studied the screen. “She’s very lovely. I was wondering—”

  “No, not the model, the dress.” Glenna scooted around on the chair. “I need a dress.”

  “Oh, did something happen to yours?”

  “No.” With a little laugh Glenna twisted the pendant around her neck. “I need a very special dress. A wedding dress. Moira, Hoyt and I are going to be married. Handfasted. We decided on handfasting, with a wedding ceremony later. After.”

  “You’re betrothed to Hoyt? I didn’t know.”

  “It just happened. I know it might seem rushed, and the timing of it—”

  “Oh, but this is wonderful!” Moira sprang up, and in a burst of enthusiasm, threw her arms around Glenna. “I’m so happy for you. For all of us.”

  “Thanks. For all of us?”

  “Weddings, they’re bright, aren’t they? Bright and happy and human. Oh, I wish we were home so I could have a feast made. You can’t make your own wedding feast, and I’m still not very good at the cooking.”

  “We won’t worry about that, not yet. Weddings are bright—and happy and human. And I’m human enough to want the perfect dress.”

  “Well, of course. Why would you want less?”

  Glenna let out a long, happy sigh. “Thank God. I’ve been feeling a little shallow. I should’ve known all I needed was another girl. Help me, will you? I have a few picked out, and I need to narrow it down.”

 
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