Morrigans cross, p.3
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.3

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  “Get away from me,” he said weakly, though the smell of her, the feel of her was both seductive and comforting. “Let me die in peace.”

  “You’re not going to die.” But she gave the wolves a wary glance. “How strong is your circle?”

  “Strong enough.”

  “Hope you’re right.”

  Exhaustion—and the valerian she’d mixed in the tea—had his head drooping again. She shifted, so she could lay his head in her lap. And there she stroked his hair, kept her eyes on the fire. “You’re not alone anymore,” she said quietly. “And I guess, neither am I.”

  “The sun…How long till dawn?”

  “I wish I knew. You should sleep now.”

  “Who are you?”

  But if she answered, he didn’t hear.

  She was gone when he woke, and so was the fever. Dawn was a misty shimmer letting thin beams eke through the summer leaves.

  Of the wolves there was only one, and it lay gored and bloody outside the circle. Its throat had been ripped open, Hoyt saw, and its belly. Even as he gained his feet to step closer, the sun beamed white through those leaves, struck the carcass.

  It erupted into flame that left nothing behind but a scatter of ashes on blackened earth.

  “To hell with you, and all like you.”

  Turning away, Hoyt busied himself, feeding his horse, brewing more tea. He was nearly done when he noticed his palm was healed. Only the faintest scar remained. He flexed his fingers, held his hand up to the light.

  Curious, he lifted his tunic. Bruises still rained over his side, but they were fading. And when he tested, he found he could move without pain.

  If what had come to him in the night had been a vision rather than a product of a fever dream, he supposed he should be grateful.

  Still, he’d never had a vision so vivid. Nor one who’d left so much of itself behind. He swore he could smell her still, and hear the flow and cadence of her voice.

  She’d said she’d known his face. How strange that somewhere in the center of him, he felt he’d known hers.

  He washed, and while his appetite had come back strong, he had to make do with berries and a heel of tough bread.

  He closed the circle, salted the blackened earth outside it. Once he was in the saddle, he set off at a gallop.

  With luck, he could be home by midday.

  There were no signs, no harbingers, no beautiful witches on the rest of his journey. There were only the fields, rolling green, back to the shadow of mountains, and the secret depths of forest. He knew his way now, would have known it if a hundred years had passed. So he sent his mount on a leap over a low stone wall and raced across the last field toward home.

  He could see the cook fire. He imagined his mother sitting in the parlor, tatting lace perhaps, or working on one of her tapestries. Waiting, hoping for news of her sons. He wished he brought her better.

  His father might be with his man of business or out riding the land, and his married sisters in their own cottages, with young Nola in the stables playing with the pups from the new litter.

  The house was tucked in the forest, because his grandmother—she who had passed power to him, and to a lesser extent, Cian—had wanted it so. It stood near a stream, a rise of stone with windows of real glass. And its gardens were his mother’s great pride.

  Her roses bloomed riotously.

  One of the servants hurried out to take his horse. Hoyt merely shook his head at the question in the man’s eyes. He walked to the door where the black banner of mourning still hung.

  Inside, another servant was waiting to take his cloak. Here in the hall, his mother’s, and her mother’s tapestries hung, and one of his father’s wolfhounds raced to greet him.

  He could smell beeswax, and roses cut fresh from the garden. The turf fire simmering in the grate. He left them behind, walked up the stairs to his mother’s sitting room.

  She was waiting, as he’d known she would be. Sitting in her chair, her hands in her lap, clasped so tightly the knuckles were white. Her face carried all the weight of her grief, and went heavier yet when she saw what was in his eyes.


  “You’re alive. You’re well.” She got to her feet, held out her arms to him. “I’ve lost my youngest son, but here is my firstborn, home again. You’ll want food and drink after your journey.”

  “I have much to tell you.”

  “And so you will.”

  “All of you, if you please, madam. I cannot stay long. I’m sorry.” He kissed her brow. “I’m sorry to leave you.”

  There was food and there was drink, and the whole of his family—save Cian—around the table. But it was not a meal like so many he remembered, with laughter and shouted arguments, with joy or petty disagreements. Hoyt studied their faces, the beauties, the strengths and the sorrows as he told them what had passed.

  “If there is to be a battle, I will come with you. Fight with you.”

  Hoyt looked at his brother-in-law Fearghus. His shoulders were broad, his fists ready.

  “Where I go, you can’t follow. You’re not charged with this fight. It’s for you and Eoin to stay here, to protect with my father, the family, the land. I would go with a heavier heart if I didn’t know you and Eoin stand in my stead. You must wear these.”

  He took out the crosses. “Each of you, and all the children who come after. Day and night, night and day. This,” he said and lifted one, “is Morrigan’s Cross, forged by the gods in magic fire. The vampyre cannot turn any who wear it into its kind. This must be passed on to those who come after you, in song and story. You will swear an oath, each of you, that you will wear this cross until death.”

  He rose, draping a cross over each neck, waiting for the sworn oath before moving on.

  Then he knelt by his father. His father’s hands were old, Hoyt noted with a jolt. He was more farmer than warrior, and in a flash, he knew his father’s death would come first, and before the Yule. Just as he knew he would never again look in the eyes of the man who’d given him life.

  And his heart bled a little.

  “I take my leave of you, sir. I ask your blessing.”

  “Avenge your brother, and come back to us.”

  “I will.” Hoyt rose. “I must gather what I need.”

  He went up to the room he kept in the topmost tower, and there began to pack herbs and potions without any real sense what would be needed.

  “Where is your cross?”

  He looked toward the doorway where Nola stood, her dark hair hanging to her waist. She was but eight, he thought, and held the softest spot in his heart.

  “She didn’t make me one,” he said, briskly. “I have another sort of shield, and there’s no need for you to be worrying. I know what I’m about.”

  “I won’t cry when you go.”

  “Why would you? I’ve gone before, haven’t I, and come back handily enough?”

  “You’ll come back. To the tower. She’ll come with you.”

  He nestled bottles carefully in his case, then paused to study his sister. “Who will?”

  “The woman with red hair. Not the goddess, but a mortal woman, one who wears the sign of the witch. I can’t see Cian, and I can’t see if you’ll win. But I can see you, here with the witch. And you’re afraid.”

  “Should a man go into battle without fear? Isn’t fear something that helps keep him alive?”

  “I don’t know of battles. I wish I were a man, and a warrior.” Her mouth, so young, so soft, went grim. “You wouldn’t be stopping me from going with you the way you stopped Fearghus.”

  “How would I dare?” He closed his case, moved to her. “I am afraid. Don’t tell the others.”

  “I won’t.”

  Aye, the softest place in his heart, he thought, and lifting her cross, used his magic to scribe her name on the back in ogham script. “It makes it only yours,” he told her.

  “Mine, and the ones who’ll have my name after me.” Her eyes glimmered,
but the tears didn’t fall. “You’ll see me again.”

  “I will, of course.”

  “When you do, the circle will be complete. I don’t know how, or why.”

  “What else do you see, Nola?”

  She only shook her head. “It’s dark. I can’t see. I’ll light a candle for you, every night, until you return.”

  “I’ll ride home by its light.” He bent down to embrace her. “I’ll miss you most of all.” He kissed her gently, then set her aside. “Be safe.”

  “I will have daughters,” she called after him.

  It made him turn, and smile. So slight, he mused, and so fierce. “Will you now?”

  “It is my lot,” she told him with a resignation that made his lips twitch. “But they will not be weak. They will not sit and spin and knead and bake all the damn day.”

  Now he grinned fully, and knew this was a memory he would take with him happily. “Oh won’t they? What then, young mother, will your daughters do?”

  “They will be warriors. And the vampyre who fancies herself a queen will tremble before them.”

  She folded her hands, much as their mother was wont to do, but with none of that meekness. “Go with the gods, brother.”

  “Stay in the light, sister.”

  They watched him go—three sisters, the men who loved them, the children they’d already made. His parents, even the servants and stable boys. He took one last long look at the house his grandfather, and his father before, had built of stone in this glade, by this stream, in this land he loved with the whole of his heart.

  Then he raised his hand in farewell, and rode away from them and toward the Dance of the Gods.

  It stood on a rise of rough grass that was thick with the sunny yellow of buttercups. Clouds had rolled to layer the sky so that light forced its way through in thin beams. The world was so still, so silent, he felt as though he rode through a painting. The gray of the sky, the green of the grass, the yellow flowers and the ancient circle of stones that had risen in its dance since beyond time.

  He felt its power, the hum of it, in the air, along his skin. Hoyt walked his horse around them, paused to read the ogham script carved into the king stone.

  “Worlds wait,” he translated. “Time flows. Gods watch.”

  He started to dismount when a shimmer of gold across the field caught his eye. There at the edge of it was a hind. The green of her eyes sparkled like the jeweled collar she wore. She walked toward him regally, and changed to the female form of the goddess.

  “You are in good time, Hoyt.”

  “It was painful to bid my family farewell. Best done quickly then.”

  He slid off the horse, bowed. “My lady.”

  “Child. You have been ill.”

  “A fever, broken now. Did you send the witch to me?”

  “There’s no need to send what will come on its own. You’ll find her again, and the others.”

  “My brother.”

  “He is first. The light will go soon. Here is the key to the portal.” She opened her hand and offered a small crystal wand. “Keep it with you, keep it safe and whole.” When he started to remount, she shook her head, took the reins. “No, you must go on foot. Your horse will get safely back home.”

  Resigned to the whimsy of gods, he took his case, his bag. He strapped on his sword, hefted his staff.

  “How will I find him?”

  “Through the portal, into the world yet to come. Into the Dance, lift the key, say the words. Your destiny lies beyond. Humankind is in your hands, from this point forward. Through the portal,” she repeated. “Into the world yet to come. Into the Dance, lift the key, say the words. Through the portal…”

  Her voice followed him in, between the great stones. He locked his fear inside him. If he’d been born for this, so be it. Life was long, he knew. It simply came in short bursts.

  He lifted the stone. A single beam of light speared out of those thick clouds to strike its tip. Power shot down his arm like an arrow.

  “Worlds wait. Time flows. Gods watch.”

  “Repeat,” Morrigan told him, and joined him so that the words became a chant.

  “Worlds wait. Time flows. Gods watch.”

  The air shook around him, came alive with wind, with light, with sound. The crystal in his uplifted hand shone like the sun and sang like a siren.

  He heard his own voice come out in a roar, shouting the words now as if in challenge.

  And so he flew. Through light and wind and sound. Beyond stars and moons and planets. Over water that made his sorcerer’s belly roil with nausea. Faster, until the light was blinding, the sounds deafening and the wind so fierce he wondered it didn’t flay the skin from his bones.

  Then the light went dim, the wind died, and the world was silent.

  He leaned on his staff, catching his breath, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the change of light. He smelled something—leather, he thought, and roses.

  He was in a room of some sort, he realized, but like nothing he’d ever seen. It was fantastically furnished with long, low chairs in deep colors, and cloth for a floor. Paintings adorned some of the walls, and others were lined with books. Dozens of books bound in leather.

  He stepped forward, charmed, when a movement to his left stopped him cold.

  His brother sat behind some sort of table, where the lamp that lit the room glowed strangely. His hair was shorter than it had been, shorn to the jawline. His eyes were vivid with what seemed to be amusement.

  In his hand was some sort of metal tool, which instinct told Hoyt was a weapon.

  Cian pointed it at his brother’s heart and tipped back in the chair, dropping his feet on the surface of the table. He smiled, broadly, and said, “Well now, look what the cat dragged in.”

  With some confusion, Hoyt frowned, scanning the room for the cat. “Do you know me?” Hoyt stepped forward, farther into the light. “It’s Hoyt. It’s your brother. I’ve come to…”

  “Kill me? Too late. Already long dead. Why don’t you just stay where you are for the moment. I see quite well in low light. You’re looking…well, fairly ridiculous really. But I’m impressed nonetheless. How long did it take you to perfect time travel?”

  “I…” Coming through the portal might have addled his brains, he thought. Or it might be simply seeing his dead brother, looking very much alive. “Cian.”

  “I’m not using that name these days. It’s Cain, right at the moment. One syllable. Take off the cloak, Hoyt, and let’s have a look at what’s under it.”

  “You’re a vampyre.”

  “I am, yes, certainly. The cloak, Hoyt.”

  Hoyt unhooked the brooch that held it in place, let it drop.

  “Sword and dagger. A lot of weaponry for a sorcerer.”

  “There’s to be a battle.”

  “Do you think so?” That amusement rippled again, coldly. “I can promise you’ll lose. What I have here is called a gun. It’s quite a good one, really. It fires out a projectile faster than you can blink. You’ll be dead where you stand before you can draw that sword.”

  “I haven’t come to fight you.”

  “Really? The last time we met—let me refresh my memory. Ah yes, you pushed me off a cliff.”

  “You pushed me off the bloody cliff first,” Hoyt said with some heat. “Broke my bloody ribs while you were about it. I thought you were gone. Oh merciful gods, Cian, I thought you were gone.”

  “I’m not, as you can plainly see. Go back where you came from, Hoyt. I’ve had a thousand years, give or take, to get over my annoyance with you.”

  “For me you died only a week ago.” He lifted his tunic. “You gave me these bruises.”

  Cian’s gaze drifted over them, then back to Hoyt’s face. “They’ll heal soon enough.”

  “I’ve come with a charge from Morrigan.”

  “Morrigan, is it?” This time the amusement burst out in laughter. “There are no gods here. No God. No faerie queens. Your magic has no place in this
time, and neither do you.”

  “But you do.”

  “Adjustment is survival. Money is god here, and power its partner. I have both. I’ve shed the likes of you a long time ago.”

  “This world will end, they will all end, by Samhain, unless you help me stop her.”

  “Stop who?”

  “The one who made you. The one called Lilith.”

  Chapter 3

  Lilith. The name brought Cian flashes of memories, a hundred lifetimes past. He could still see her, smell her, still feel that sudden, horrified thrill in the instant she’d taken his life.

  He could still taste her blood, and what had come into him with it. The dark, dark gift.

  His world had changed. And he’d been given the privilege—or the curse—of watching worlds change over countless decades.

  Hadn’t he known something was coming? Why else had he been sitting alone in the middle of the night, waiting?

  What nasty little twist of fate had sent his brother—or the brother of the man he’d once been—across time to speak her name?

  “Well, now you have my attention.”

  “You must come back with me, prepare for the battle.”

  “Back? To the twelfth century?” Cian let out a short laugh as he leaned back in his chair. “Nothing, I promise you, could tempt me. I like the conveniences of this time. The water runs hot here, Hoyt, and so do the women. I’m not interested in your politics and wars, and certainly not in your gods.”

  “The battle will be fought, with or without you, Cian.”

  “Without sounds perfectly fine.”

  “You’ve never turned from battle, never hidden from a fight.”

  “Hiding wouldn’t be the term I’d use,” Cian said easily. “And times change. Believe me.”

  “If Lilith defeats us, all you know will be lost in this time, for all time. Humankind will cease to be.”

  Cian angled his head. “I’m not human.”

  “Is that your answer?” Hoyt strode forward. “You’ll sit and do nothing while she destroys? You’ll stand by while she does to others what she did to you? While she kills your mother, your sisters? Will you sit there while she turns Nola into what you are?”

  “They’re dead. Long dead. They’re dust.” Hadn’t he seen their graves? He hadn’t been able to stop himself from going back and standing over their stones,
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