Dark witch, p.29
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       Dark Witch, p.29
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         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts

  the carved head that so resembled Kathel’s. “Horse, hound, hawk. And weapons and tools. I have a spell I’ve worked on for some time, and I think it’s an answer, but only if we draw him to the right place, the right time. And then we’ll need his blood to seal it.”

  “What spell is this?” Fin demanded.

  “One I’ve worked on,” Branna repeated. “I’ve used bits of Sorcha’s spells, others that have come down, something of my own.”

  “And practiced it?”

  Irritation flickered over her face. “It’s too risky. If he learns of it, he can and will block against it. It must be done the first time on Sorcha’s ground. You need to trust I know what I’m about.”

  “You must be trusted,” Fin repeated.

  “Bloody hell.” Branna started to shove back from the table, but Iona raised a hand.

  “Just wait. What kind of spell? I mean, a banishing, a drawing, a vanquishing spell? What?”

  “A vanquishing, a light spell, a fire spell. All of them in one, sealed with blood magick.”

  “Light defeats the dark. Fire purifies. And blood is at the heart of all.”

  Branna smiled. “You learn well. But it may come to nothing if not done at the right time, at the right place. It will come to nothing if we all, each one, don’t agree and stand together, in that time and place.”

  “Then we will.” Iona lifted her hands as she looked from face to face. “We all know we will. You’d do anything you could to destroy him,” she said to Fin. “For Branna, for yourself, for the rest of us. In that order. And Branna would do anything to sever whatever link he might have with you, so you’d be free of it. Connor and Meara would stand for love and friendship, for what’s right and good whatever the risk or cost. Boyle would fight because that’s how he works. You just have to say when and where, and he’d be with you. And because, whatever’s changed between him and me, he’d never want anything to happen to me. And I would never want anything to happen to him.

  “For love and friendship, for family and friends, we’ll stand together in the right time, in the right place and fight with each other. Fight for each other.”

  After a moment’s silence, Fin picked up the champagne he’d ignored, lifted the glass toward Iona. “All right, deirfiúr bheag. We’ll be your happy few.” He shifted toward Branna. “Trust,” he said, waited.

  “Trust.” She lifted her own glass, touched it to his. In that quiet clink a spark of light flashed, then softened away.

  “With that settled, let’s get down to the nitty of it then.” Connor leaned forward. “Step-by-step.”

  Boyle said nothing as Branna walked them through her plan, as that plan was revised, questioned, adjusted. He said nothing because looking at Iona as she’d spoken had given him all and every answer.

  He’d hold on to them until it was time to give them back to her.

  * * *

  SHE COUNTED DOWN THE DAYS AS MAY DRIFTED INTO JUNE, and let herself cling to each one for itself. She could prize the blue skies when she had them, welcome the rain when it fell. She came to believe that whatever happened on the longest day, she’d had these weeks, these months, and these people in her life, and so her life, even for that short time, had been richer than ever before.

  She’d been given a gift and learned how to use it, how to trust and respect it.

  She was, and ever would be, of the three. She was, and ever would be, a dark witch of Mayo, charged with power and with light.

  She believed they would triumph, her nature demanded she believe. But that gift she’d been given demanded the respect of caution and care.

  As the solstice approached, she wrote a long letter to her grandmother—pen and paper, she thought. Old-school, but it was important, felt important, to take the time, make the effort. In it she spoke of love, for her grandmother, her cousins, her friends. For Boyle, and the mistakes she’d made.

  She spoke of finding herself, her place, her time, and what it meant to her to have come to Ireland. And to have become there.

  She asked only one thing. If something happened, her grandmother would find the amulet, take it and Alastar, and pass them both to the next.

  There would be a next if she failed. That, too, she believed absolutely.

  However long it took, light would beat back the dark.

  * * *

  ON THE MORNING BEFORE THE SOLSTICE SHE WENT DOWN EARLY, the letter in her back pocket. She tried her hand at cooking a full breakfast fry, and though she thought she’d never be more than a half-decent cook, it didn’t mean not making the effort.

  Connor walked in, sniffing the air.

  “And what’s all this then?”

  “We’ll be busy tomorrow, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to do it up right and spare Branna the time. She was up late again, wasn’t she?”

  “Barely sleeping the past week or so, and no amount of cajoling or arguing changes it.”

  “I hear her music, like last night, and it smooths me right out. She does it on purpose.”

  “Claims she thinks clearer when the two of us aren’t thinking.” He snagged a sausage from the plate. “You’re worried.”

  “I guess I am, now that it’s down to hours instead of days. Why aren’t you?”

  “We’re meant to do what we’re doing. If something’s meant, what’s the point in worrying over it?”

  For comfort, she leaned against him a moment. “You smooth me out as much as Branna’s music.”

  “I have every faith. In you.” He wrapped an arm around her waist for a squeeze. “In Branna, in myself. And in all the others as well, and as much. We’ll do what’s meant, and do our best. And that’s all anyone can ever do.”

  “You’re right, on all of it.” She eased away to pile a plate full for him. “I feel him lurking, don’t you? I feel him around the edges of my dreams trying to get in. He nearly does, and part of me realizes I’m allowing it. Then there’s Branna’s music, and the next I know it’s morning.”

  Iona got down another plate, arranged about half as much on it as she had for Connor. “I’m going to leave this warming in the oven for Branna.”

  When she turned around, Connor just wrapped his arms around her. He had, Iona thought, the most comforting way.

  “There now, stop the fretting. He’s never faced the like of us three, or the three with us.”

  “You’re right again. So let’s eat, then I’m going to drive to work, taking the long way for practice.”

  “You’d be there in half the time if I walked you.”

  “True, but I wouldn’t practice.” Or be able to stop off at the hotel, ask if they’d post her letter the next day.

  She kept her eyes peeled for any trace of fog, of the black wolf, of anything that alarmed her instincts or senses. She made it to Ashford Castle without incident or accident. Really, she thought she handled the Mini, the roads, the left-hand drive very well, whatever Meara said to the contrary.

  Just as she believed she handled the throbbing nerves of the waiting, of the silence, very well.

  Maybe her pulse jittered every time she looked out a window of the cottage to scan forest, road, hills. Maybe she recognized the ache of stress in her back and shoulders every time she prepared to lead a group through the green shadows and thick woods.

  But she continued to look from the window, continued to guide groups. And that, Iona told herself as she pulled up to the stables, counted most.

  As she was the first to arrive, she opened the doors, shifted to flip on the lights.

  And there in the center of the ring stood the wolf.

  The doors slammed behind her; the lights flashed off. For one shocked moment, all she could see were three red glows. The wolf’s eyes, and its power stone.

  They blurred when it charged.

  She threw up a hand—a block, a shield. The wolf struck it with such force she felt the ground tremble. Just as she felt the cracks zig across her block like shattering glass.

  She w
atched the shadow of its shape bunch to charge again.

  She heard the cries of the horses, full of fear. And that decided her course.

  As the wolf charged, she vanished the shield, jumped to the left. The momentum carried it through so it struck the doors with the force of a cannonball. When they burst open, it was Iona’s turn to charge.

  She rushed out, threw the shield behind her this time. It wouldn’t get through, wouldn’t harm the horses. Bracing her feet, she prepared to protect even as the wolf circled back. Even as it rose up on two legs and became a man.

  “You’re a quick one, and clever enough.” As in the dreams, his voice was like cold hands gliding over the skin. And still, somehow seductive. “But young, in years and in power.”

  “Old enough in both.”

  He smiled at her. Something in her spirit repelled even as something in her body stirred.

  “I could kill you with a look.”

  “Not so far.”

  “Your death isn’t my wish, Iona the Bright. Only give me what has come so late to you, what is still so young, so fresh in you.” Dark, dark eyes holding hers, he edged closer as he spoke in that silky voice. “I want only the power you don’t yet understand, and I’ll spare you. I’ll spare all of you.”

  Her heart pounded, too hard, too fast. But her power stirred, in the belly, and would rise. She would make it rise.

  “Is that all? Really? Ah . . . no.” She heard the cry of the hawk overhead, and now she smiled. “Company’s coming.”

  “You’ll be the death of them. Their blood will stain your hands. Look. See. Know.”

  She glanced down at her hands, at the blood staining them, dripping from them to pool on the ground. The sight of it, the warmth of it, sliced true fear through her belly, through her heart.

  When she looked up Cabhan was gone. And Boyle rode like a madman on Alastar up the dirt path.

  “I’m fine,” she called out, but her voice sounded tinny, and her knees wanted to buckle. “Everything’s fine.”

  The hound streaked to her side as Boyle leapt from Alastar’s back. “What happened?”

  When he started to grab her hands, she instinctively pulled them back. Then saw, both shocked and relieved, they were clean.

  “He was here, but he’s gone.” She leaned against the horse, as much to soothe him as for his support. The hawk landed as lightly, as neatly on Alastar’s saddle as he might on a tree branch. And Kathel sat quiet at her side.

  All of them here, she thought. Horse, hawk, hound.

  And Boyle.

  “How are you here?”

  “I’d just saddled Alastar to ride him over when he let out a bloody war cry and bolted for the fence. I barely had time to jump on his back before we went over it. Let me look at you.” He grabbed her, spun her around. “You’re not hurt? You’re sure of it?”

  “No. I mean yes, I’m sure. Alastar heard me.” She laid a hand on the horse’s neck. “They all heard me,” she murmured as the hawk watched her, as Kathel’s tail gave one quick thump. And her cousins pulled up in Connor’s truck, spewing dirt and gravel with the slam of brakes.

  “They . . .” She paused as Fin’s truck, then Meara’s sped into the stable yard. “They all heard me. He couldn’t stop that. It couldn’t stop that from getting through.”

  “What the bloody, buggering hell happened?” Boyle demanded.

  “I’ll tell you. All of you,” she said, speaking to the group. “But we need to check the horses. He didn’t hurt them. I’d know if he did. But they’re afraid.”

  She brought Alastar with her, felt the need to keep him close as she went back inside.

  They would purify the ring, she thought. Branna would see to it.

  She soothed the horses, one by one, and so doing soothed herself. By the time the stable hands arrived to see to the morning routine, she huddled with the rest, crowded in Boyle’s little office, and told the tale.

  “There’s a sexuality, on the most elemental level,” she added. “He uses it like a weapon. It’s powerful, and it pulls. But more, he was stronger this time. Maybe he’s been storing it up somehow. I don’t know the answer, but I know when he hit the shield, it cracked. It wouldn’t hold him back.”

  “So you removed it, took him straight out the doors. Clever,” Fin told her.

  “That’s what he said. Right before he promised to spare all our lives if I gave him my power.”

  “He’s a liar,” Branna reminded her.

  “I know it. I know. But the blood on my hands.” Fighting a fresh shudder, she pressed her palms together. “It felt real, and it felt like yours. He knows I’m still the weak spot.”

  “He’s wrong, and so are you if you believe it.” With the lack of space, Boyle couldn’t pace off the anger, so he just balled his fists into his pockets. “There’s nothing weak in you.”

  “He wanted to scare me, and tempt me. He managed both.”

  “And what did you do about it?”

  She nodded. “I like to think I would have, could have kept doing it if all of you hadn’t come so quickly. But the point is I’m still his focus. Take what’s mine, and he believes he can take the rest.”

  “So we’ll use that. We will,” Fin said before Boyle could object. “The slightest adjustment to the plan, and he’ll see her as vulnerable, see it as the time and place to close in, and have it done.”

  “It’s more complicated,” Branna began.

  “And since when have a few complications buggered you up?”

  “More dangerous,” Connor added.

  “If we’re in it, we’re in it.” Meara shrugged. “Today proves Iona can’t even come to work in the morning without a risk. Why should she live that way? Or any of us?”

  “The next time he might hurt the horses,” Iona added. “To damage me, to distract me. I won’t have that. I couldn’t live with that. What adjustments?”

  “He thinks you’ll go alone tomorrow, to the ruins.”

  Iona stared at Boyle, saw the fury behind his eyes. “I’m bait. But bait with knowledge and power. And a very strong circle.”

  Before Boyle could curse, Branna laid a hand on his arm. “She’s never alone, never will be. You’ve my word, and the word of all of us here.”

  She gave his arm a rub, then considered. “It could be done. I think it could be done well enough.”

  “You’ll work with me on just that today then?”

  Branna looked at Fin, fought her nasty internal war. “I will, for Iona. For the circle.”

  “We’ll get started. Keep in the company of others,” Fin added, tracing a finger over Iona’s cheek. “For the day, keep others close, will you, little sister?”

  “No problem.”

  It was easy enough, especially since Boyle or Meara hovered.

  Boyle took her off guided rides for the day—a frustration to her—and stuck her on stable duties.

  She groomed, fed, cleaned stalls, repaired tack, polished boots.

  And the day dragged.

  She rode Alastar to the big stables—Boyle on Spud beside her—to deal with the lesson she had scheduled for the end of the day.

  This time tomorrow, she thought, she’d make the final preparations. And she’d take the next steps toward her destiny.

  “We’re going to win this,” she said to Boyle.

  “Cocksure’s a foolish thing.”

  “It’s not cocksure, or not cocky.” She remembered Connor’s words, and her feeling with him, in the morning kitchen. “It’s faith, and faith’s a strong, positive thing.”

  “I don’t care for you being the tip of the spear in this.”

  “I sure didn’t plan to be, but because I am, he’s the one who’ll be cocksure and foolish. Think about that.”

  “I’ve been thinking of it, and considerable else.”

  At the stables he dismounted, waited for her to do the same. “I’ve something to show you.”

  He started into the stables. Before one of the hands could speak
, Boyle signaled him away, jerked a thumb and sent him out. Then led the way to the tack room with its scent of leather and oil.

  “It’s that.”

  She followed the gesture, hummed in pleasure at the gleam of the saddle sitting on its stand.

  “That’s new, isn’t it?” She stepped to it, ran a hand over the curve, over the smooth black leather. “Beautifully made, and just look at the stirrups shine! It’s hand-tooled, isn’t it? It’s—”

  “It’s yours.”

  “What? Mine?”

  “It’s made for you, specifically, and for Alastar. For the pair of you.”

  “But—”

  “Well, I didn’t know, did I, the others would be after buying the car for you, and this was meant for your birthday.”

  If he’d offered her a pirate’s chest of gold and jewels she’d have been less stunned. “You . . . You had this made for me, for my birthday?”

  His brows drew together, just short of a glower. “A horsewoman of your caliber should have her own saddle, and a fine one.”

  When she said nothing, he lifted the saddle, turned it over. “See, it’s your name there.”

  Gently, she brushed her fingers over her name. Just Iona, she thought. Just her first name, and a symbol of flames beside it—Alastar’s name, and a trinity knot, across from it.

  “I know a man who does the work,” Boyle continued, flustered when the silence dragged out. “The leather work, and the . . . ah, well, it seemed fitting to me.”

  “It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful gift.”

  “You’d sold your own.”

  “That’s right.” She looked at him then, just looked. “To come here.”

  “So . . . sure now you have another. And if we’re to do this tomorrow, you should have it. You and Alastar should use it.” He started to turn it over again, secure it. Iona put a hand over his.

  “It’s much more than another saddle. Much more to me.” She rose on her toes, brushed her lips over one of his cheeks, the other, then lightly over his lips. “Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome, of course, and happy birthday again. I’ve things to see to now. Fin’ll be keeping an eye out, as he let me know he and Branna are done for today.”

  “All right. Thank you, Boyle.”

  “As you’ve said.”

  She let him go. She had a lesson to prepare for. And decisions to make.

  * * *

  SHE WALKED OVER TO FIN WHEN HER STUDENT LEFT. Gave a short sigh. “I didn’t give her my best today.”

  “I wager she’d disagree. And if you’re a bit distracted today, there’s cause enough.”

 
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