Dark witch, p.22
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       Dark Witch, p.22
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         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts

  “No, yes. I don’t know. You struck out, and it was like you punched a hole, for a moment. I . . . But you’re bleeding.”

  “Sure it’s but a scratch.”

  “No, it’s from him. I don’t know if it’s just a scratch.” She could call on Connor or Branna, but she felt, somehow, this was for her to do.

  “I need to fix it.”

  “Just needs a quick wash, and ointment if you’re going to fuss about it.”

  “Not that way.” Her heart beat so fast now, faster, she realized, than it had, even through the fear of the dream.

  He bled, and it was Cabhan who’d drawn that blood.

  “It’s an unnatural wound. I’ve studied it, if you’ll trust me.”

  She laid her hand over the shallow gash, closed her eyes. She saw his hand—strong, broad, the fascinating scarred knuckles from his boxing days. The blood, and deeper, looking deeper, the thin black line of Cabhan’s poison.

  Just as she’d feared.

  Draw it out, she told herself. Out and away. White against black again. Light against dark. Out and away before it sank deeper, before it could spread.

  She felt it go, little by little, felt it burn away. She knew by the way his hand stiffened, it caused him pain. But now the wound ran clean. Slowly, carefully, she set to the healing of the shallow gash. Now the pain—small, sharp stings were hers. But they faded, faded.

  Just a scratch, as he’d said, once the poison had been drawn out.

  She opened her eyes, found his on her.

  “You’ve gone pale.”

  “It took some doing. My first try at this kind of thing.” Her head spun a little, and her stomach did a couple of slow rolls.

  But the wound was clean, and it was closed. She studied his hand, satisfied. “He used poison. I don’t know if it would’ve done anything, but it might have spread. It wasn’t much, but it’s gone now. You could have Connor take a look.”

  Boyle continued to study her as he flexed his fingers. “I’d say you did well enough.”

  “I don’t know if he expected me to pull you with me. And I don’t know how I did. But you told me what needed to be done. The fire. You told me, and it worked.”

  “Burned him to ashes.”

  “Well, wouldn’t be the first time, and I really don’t think it’s the last.”

  “No, not the last of it.”

  “I’d say I’m sorry I dragged you into that, but I’m awfully glad you were with me.”

  “It was an experience for certain.”

  One that left him shaken, and more, puzzled him. During it he’d felt such calm, and such absolute faith she would do what needed to be done.

  “It seemed like a dream,” he continued, “the way your mind can be a bit slow, and you don’t question the oddities.”

  “I’ll do a charm for the bed, or better, have Branna do one. It should help.”

  “I hurt him.” Again, Boyle flexed his fingers. “He wasn’t expecting a punch, I’m thinking. I know when one lands well, and it did. I’m thinking as well, the poison was for you. Could I have pulled you back out, as you did me? Do you know that? And if I did that, could I have gotten you to Connor in time to deal with the poison, if I’d thought to?”

  “You knew what to do.” Instinctively, she lifted her hands to rub at his shoulders, found them knotted. “You knew we needed fire, and you stayed so calm. I needed you to stay calm. I’m going to believe you’d know what to do if and when he comes at us again.”

  She let out a long breath. “I’m starving. I’ll go fix breakfast.”

  “I’ll do it. You’re a terrible cook.”

  “That’s so entirely true. Fine, you cook. I’ll give Branna a call, tell her, just in case. Are we still on for that rambling?”

  “I don’t see what this changes about it.”

  “Great. I’ll grab a shower, then call Branna. It’s early, and she’ll be less cranky with another fifteen minutes’ sleep.”

  “I’ll put the kettle on.”

  But he picked up his phone first and, while she ran the shower, punched in Fin’s number. He’d sooner know what Fin had to say before he fried up the bacon.

  15

  IT WAS THE COUNTRY OF HER BLOOD, AND AS SHE WATCHED it rise and fall and spread outside the truck window, Iona understood it was the country of her heart.

  It settled into her like a sip of whiskey on a cold night, warm and comforting. Green hills rolled under a sky layered with clouds, stacked like sheets of linen. The sun shimmered through them, making intermittent swirls of blue luminous as opals. Fat cows and woolly sheep dotted emerald fields bisected with rough hedgerows or silvery gray rock walls.

  Farmhouses, barns, pretty little cottages scattered over the land with postcard charm as the road twisted and curved. Dooryard gardens reached for spring, with brave blooms opening in wild blues, sassy oranges, delicate whites, topped here and there by the heralding trumpets of daffodils.

  She would have spring in Ireland, Iona thought, the first of a lifetime. And like those brave flowers, she determined to bloom.

  The road might turn, curve out like a tunnel with high, high hedgerows of wild fuchsia hugging the sides of the twists, the turns with their blooms dripping like drops of blood. Then the world opened again to the hills, the fields, and, thrillingly, the shadows of mountains.

  “How do you stand it?” Iona wondered. “Doesn’t it constantly dazzle your eyes, take your breath, make your heart ache?”

  “It’s home,” Boyle said simply. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be. It suits me.”

  “Oh, me, too.” And finally, she thought, she felt she suited it.

  The wind kicked, and a splatter of rain struck the windshield. Then the sun ran behind it to turn the drops into tiny rainbows.

  Magick, Iona thought, simple and mysterious.

  As was Ballintubber Abbey.

  Its clean lines lent a quiet dignity to the old gray stone. It made its home on pretty grounds backed with fields of sheep spread before the green hills, the loom of mountains.

  Simple grandeur, she thought, finding the oxymoron the perfect description of the ancient and the life going quietly on around it. She climbed out of the truck to study the pathways, the gardens defying winter’s last shivers, and smiled as the breeze carried the baaing of sheep.

  She thought she could sit on the grass and spend an entire day happily just looking, just listening.

  “I suppose you’ll be wanting the history of the place.”

  She’d read some of it in her guide, but enjoyed the idea of Boyle giving her his take.

  “I wouldn’t mind.”

  “Well, it was Conchobair who built it—Cathal Mor of the wine-red hand, of the O’Connor clan, so he’d be one of yours.”

  “Oh. Of course.” How deep her blood ran here, she thought. And how marvelous was that? “Like Ashford, before the Burkes won it.”

  “There you are. Back in 1216 it was. I know the date, as they’re after restoring the east wing, I think it is, for its eight-hundred-year celebration. And so the legend—or one of them—says while Cathal was the son of King Turloch, he was forced to flee from Turloch’s queen, and spend some time laboring and in hiding before he took the throne. And there was a man who treated him kindly, and Cathal, now king, asked him what he could do to repay him. It was a church that the man, now old, wanted, in Ballintubber, and so Cathal ordered it built.”

  They walked the path as he told the tale, with his voice rising and falling on the words, the sheep baaing their chorus. Ridiculously happy, Iona took Boyle’s hand to link them, to seal the moments.

  “After some years, the king saw the old man again, and was scolded for not keeping his word. It seems the church had been built right enough, but in Roscommon.”

  Laughing, Iona looked up at him. “Oops.”

  “So you could say. But Cathal ordered another church built, and it came to be Ballintubber Abbey.”

  “A man of his word.”

 
; “So it’s said.”

  “I like knowing I have a grateful and honest king in my ancestry.”

  “And it’s a lasting legacy, as it’s said to be the only church in Ireland founded by an Irish king and still in use.”

  “I think that’s wonderful. People too often knock down the old for the new instead of understanding that legacy.”

  “What comes before now matters,” he said simply. “Pierce Brosnan was married here a few years back, and that’s been a newer claim to fame. Older it’s the start of Tórchar Phádraig.”

  “The pilgrimage route to Saint Patrick’s mountain. I’ve read about that.”

  “It’s also said Seán na Sagart, who was a nefarious priest hunter, is buried in the cemetery here. There.” Boyle lifted his hand to point to a large tree. “So it’s said.”

  “It’s a good place. Clean, powerful. And I feel this recognition somewhere deep, this connection. Is that weird?”

  He only shrugged. “Your blood built it.”

  “So you made it our first stop.” Smiling, she leaned her head against his arm. “Thanks.” She glanced down at an old, pitted stone and its carving. “The Crowning?”

  “Oh well, they’ve more than the abbey, and the graves and such. That’s part of the Stations. They’ve added that, a Rosary Walk, and over there, a little cave that’s fashioned as a stable, for the Nativity. It’s a bit odd.”

  “It’s wonderful.” Tugging his hand she followed the path, finding other stones and markers among the trim and pretty gardens. “It’s so abstract, so contemporary, and a really creative contrast against the antiquity.”

  She paused at a little stream, its bank blanketed with low, spreading bushes as it rose to rough stones. Three crosses topped it to represent the Crucifixion.

  “It should be sad, and I know it should be reverent. It is, but it’s more . . . compelling. And then this.” She stepped into the cave to look over the statues of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus. “It’s wonderful, too—sweet and a little kitschy. I think Cathal would like what’s been done.”

  “He’s made no objections that I know of.”

  They went inside, and there she found hushed reverence.

  “The Cromwellians set fire to the place,” Boyle told her. “You can see from the ruins outside the monastery that the quarters and such fell. But the church stood, and still does. The baptismal area there, they say, is a thousand years old.”

  “It’s comforting, isn’t it, to know the things we build can survive. It’s beautiful. The stained glass, the stone.”

  The way her footsteps echoed in the quiet only added to the atmosphere.

  “You know a lot about it,” she commented. “Did you study up?”

  “Didn’t have to. I had an uncle worked here on some of the repairs and improvements.”

  “So my blood built it, and yours helped keep it. That’s another connection.”

  “True enough. And I’ve had two cousins and a couple of mates married here, so I’ve been around and about it a few times.”

  “It’s a good place for a wedding. The continuity, the care, the respect. And the romance—tales of kings and priest hunters, Cromwellians and James Bond.”

  He laughed at that, but she only smiled. She felt something here. A kinship, a recognition, and now a kind of knowing.

  She’d come here before, she realized, or her blood had come.

  To sit, perhaps, in that quiet reverence.

  “Candles and flowers, light and scent. And music. Women in pretty dresses and handsome men.” She wandered again, painting it in her mind. “A fretful baby being soothed, a shuffle of feet. Joy, anticipation, and love making a promise. Yes, it’s a good place for a wedding.”

  She wanted it for hers, this place of age and contrast and endurance.

  She went back to him, took his hand again. “Promises made here would matter, and they’d hold, if the ones making them believed it.”

  Back outside she wandered the ruins, brushing her fingers over old stone, moved through the cemetery where the long dead rested.

  She took pictures to mark the day and, though he grumbled about it, persuaded Boyle to pose with her as she took a self-portrait with her cell phone.

  “I’ll send it to my Nan,” she told him. “She’ll get a kick out of seeing . . .”

  “What is it?”

  “I . . . The light. Do you see it?” She held out the phone to him.

  On the screen they posed with her head tipped to his shoulder. She smiled, easy, and Boyle more soberly.

  And light, white as candle wax, surrounded them.

  “The angle maybe. A flash from the sun.”

  “You know it’s not.”

  “It’s not, no,” he admitted.

  “It’s this place,” she murmured. “Founded by my blood, kept by yours—that’s part of it. It’s a good place, a strong place. A safe one. I think they came here, the three. And others that came from them. Now me. I feel . . . welcome here. It’s a good light, Boyle. It’s good magick.”

  She took his hand, studying the back of it where dark magick had spilled blood.

  “Connor said it was clean,” he reminded her.

  “Yeah. Light banishes shadows. Meara was right about that.” Still holding his hand, she looked into his eyes. “But like promises made, the light has to believe it.”

  “And do you?”

  “I do.” She lifted her free hand to his face, rose on her toes to brush her lips to his.

  She believed it. Deep down in her belly she carried faith and resolve. And her heart came to accept what she understood as she’d walked with him along the paths and tidy gardens that opened for spring, among the spirits and the legends, into the promise kept by one of hers.

  She loved. At last. Loved as she’d always hoped. He was her once in a lifetime. And with him she had to learn patience, and hold only to that faith as well. The faith that he would love as she loved.

  She put on her best smile. “What’s next?”

  “Well there’s the Ross Abbey. Actually, it’s a friary. Ross Errilly. It’s not far, and you’d probably like to poke about in it.”

  “Bring it on.”

  She glanced around as they walked to the truck, and knew she’d come back. Maybe to walk the Stations or just stand in the breeze and look out at the fields.

  She’d come back, as her blood had come.

  But now, as he drove away, she looked forward.

  She saw it from the road, the foreboding mass of it, its peaks and tower and rambling walls. Under the thick sky it looked like something out of an old movie where creatures who shuffled in the dark hid and plotted.

  She couldn’t wait to get a closer look.

  The truck bumped down a skinny track with pretty little houses on one side, laced with gardens with blooms testing the chill. The other side of the track spread with fields loaded with cows and sheep.

  Ahead, beyond the tidy and pastoral, loomed the ruins.

  “I didn’t study up,” he told her. “But I know it’s old, of course—not as old as the abbey, but old for all that.”

  She walked toward it, heard the whistle of the wind through the peaks and jut of stone, and the flapping of wings from birds, the lowing of cattle.

  The central tower speared up above the roofless walls.

  She stepped inside a doorway, and now her feet crunched on gravel.

  Vaults for the dead, or stones for them fixed flat into the ground.

  “I think the Brits kicked out the monks, as they were wont, then, as they were wont, the Cromwellians did the rest and sacked the place. Pillaged and burned.”

  “It’s massive.” She stepped through an arch, looking up at the tower and the black birds that circled it.

  The air felt heavy—rain to come, she decided. Wind blew through the arched windows, whistled down the narrow curve of stone steps.

  “This must’ve been the kitchen.” She didn’t like the way her voice echoed, but moved closer to look down i
n what seemed to be some sort of dry well. “Stand over there.” She gestured to the ox-roasting fireplace.

  He shuffled his feet, gave her a pained look. “I’m not much for pictures.”

  “Indulge me. It’s a big fireplace. You’re a big guy.”

  She snapped her pictures. “They’d butcher their own meat, grow their own vegetables, mill flour. Keep fish in the well there. The Franciscans.” She wandered out, even at her height ducking under archways, to an open area.

  A line of archways, gravestones, grass. “The cloister. Quiet thoughts, robes, and folded hands. They looked so pious, but some had humor, others ambition. Envy, greed, lust, even here.”

  “Iona.”

  But she moved on, stopped at the base of steps where a Christ figure had been carved in the arch. “Symbols are important. The Christians followed the pagans there, carving and painting their one God as the old ones carved and painted the many. Neither understand that the one is part of the many, the many part of the one.”

  Wind fluttered through her hair as she stepped out on a narrow balustrade. Boyle took her arm in a firm grip.

  “I died here, or my blood did. It feels the same. Breaking the journey home, too old, too ill to continue on. Some would burn the witch, such is the time, but her power’s gone quiet, and they take her in. She wears the symbol, but they don’t know what it means. The copper horse.”

  Iona’s hand closed over her amulet. “But he knows. He smells her weakness. He waits, but must come to her. She can’t finish the journey. And she feels him nearing, greedy for what she has left. He has less than he did, but enough. Still enough. She has no choice now. it can’t be done in the place of her power, at the source. He’s whispering. Can you hear him?”

  “Come away now.”

  She turned. Her eyes had gone nearly black. “It’s not done, and it must be done. She has her granddaughter—such love between them, and the power simmers in the young. She passes what she has, as the first did, as her own father had done with her, and with the power, she passes on the symbol. A burden, a stone in the heart. It’s always been that for her, never with joy to balance it. So she passes power and symbol with grief.

  “And the rooks flap their wings. The wolf howls on the hill. The fog creeps along the ground. She speaks her last words.”

  Iona’s voice rose, carried over the wind—in Irish. Above the layered clouds something rumbled that might have been thunder, might have been power waking. The circling birds swooped away with frightened calls, leaving only sky and stone.

  “The bells tolled as if they knew,” she continued. “Though the girl wept, she felt the power rise up—hot and white. Strong, young, vital, and fierce. So he was denied what he craved yet again. And again, and again, he waits.”

  Iona’s eyes rolled back. When she swayed, Boyle dragged her in close.

  “I have to leave here,” she said weakly.

  “Bloody right.” He plucked her off her feet, carried her down the narrow, curving stairs, through archways where he nearly bent double to pass through, and out again into the air and the patter of rain.

  The wet felt like heaven on her cheeks. “I’m okay. Just a little dizzy. I don’t know what happened.”

  “A vision. I’ve seen Connor caught in one.”

 
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