Dark witch, p.3
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       Dark Witch, p.3

         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts
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  “And you’re a fool not to. Together we will crush all who stand against us, live as gods, be as gods. And for this I will give you what your heart most desires.”

  “You don’t know my heart.”

  “A babe in your belly to replace the loss. My son, born of you. More powerful than any has known before or will again.”

  Grief for the loss struck, and fear, a terrible fear for the tiny seed of want in her for what he offered. A life growing in her, strong and real.

  Sensing that fear, Cabhan stepped closer. “A son,” he murmured. “Bright in your womb. Thriving there, born strong and glorious, like no other. Give me your hand, Sorcha, and I will give you your heart’s desire.”

  She trembled for a moment, a moment only, as oh, by all the gods, she craved that life.

  And as she trembled, Teagan leaped out from behind her skirts. She hurled a rock, striking Cabhan on the temple. A thin line of blood, dark, dark red, trickled down his pale skin.

  His eyes went fierce as he swung out. Before the blow could land, Sorcha shoved him back with sheer force of will.

  She pulled Teagan up, into her arms.

  Wind whipped around her now, one born of her own fury. “I will kill you a thousand times, I will give you agony for ten thousand years if you lay hands on my child. I swear this on all I am.”

  “You threaten me? You and your runt?” He fixed his eyes on Teagan’s face, and his smile spread like death. “Pretty little runt. Bright as a fish in the water. Shall I catch and eat you?”

  Though she clung to Sorcha, though she shivered, Teagan didn’t cower. “Go away!”

  In fury and fear, her young, untried power slapped out, struck as true as the stone. Now blood ran from Cabhan’s mouth, and his smile became a snarl.

  “First you, then your brother. Your sister . . . a bit of ripening first for she, too, will bear me sons.” With a fingertip, he smeared the blood on his face, crossed it over the amulet. “I would have spared them for you,” he told Sorcha. “Now you will see their deaths.”

  Sorcha pressed her lips to Teagan’s ear. “He can’t hurt you,” she began in a whisper, then watched in horror as Cabhan changed.

  His body shifted, twisted like the fog. The amulet glowed, the gem spun until his eyes sparked as red as the stone.

  Black hair covered his body. Claws sprang from his fingers. And as he seemed to spill over onto the ground, he threw back his head. He howled.

  Slowly, carefully, Sorcha set Teagan down again behind her. “He can’t hurt you.” She prayed it was true, that the magick she’d imbued into the copper sign would hold even against this form.

  For surely he’d bartered his soul for this dark art.

  The wolf bared its teeth, and sprang.

  She pushed back—thrusting out her hands, drawing up her strength so that pure white light shot from her palms. When it struck the wolf it screamed, almost like a man. But it came again, and again, leaping, snapping, its eyes feral and horribly human.

  The claws lashed out, caught Sorcha’s skirts, tore them. Then it was Teagan’s scream that sliced the air.

  “Go away, go away!” She pelted the wolf with rocks, rocks that turned to balls of fire as they struck, so the fog smelled of burning flesh and fur.

  The wolf lunged again, howling still. Teagan tumbled back as Sorcha slashed down at it. The little girl’s cloak fell open. From the copper sign she wore burst a blue flame, straight and sharp as an arrow. It struck the wolf’s flank, scored a mark shaped like a pentagram.

  On an agonized cry, the wolf flew back. As it pawed and snapped at the air, Sorcha gathered all she had, hurled her light, her hope, her power.

  The world went white, blinding her. Desperate, she groped for Teagan’s hand as she fell to her knees.

  The fog vanished. All that remained of the wolf was scorched earth in its shape.

  Weeping, Teagan clutched at her mother, burrowed into her—just a child now, frightened of monsters all too real.

  “There now, it’s gone. You’re safe. We need to go home. We need to be home, my baby.”

  But she lacked the strength even to stand. She could have wept herself to be brought so low. Once she could have summoned the power to fly through the woods with her child in her arms. Now her limbs trembled, her breath burned, and her heart beat so fast and hard it pounded her temples.

  If Cabhan gathered himself, came back . . .

  “Run home. You know the way. Run home. I’ll follow.”

  “I stay with you.”

  “Teagan, do as I say.”

  “No. No.” Knuckling her eyes, Teagan stubbornly shook her head. “You come. You come.”

  Gritting her teeth, Sorcha managed to get to her feet. But after two steps, she simply sank to her knees again. “I can’t do it, my baby. My legs won’t carry me.”

  “Alastar can. I’ll call him, and he’ll carry us home.”

  “Can you call him, from all this way?”

  “He’ll come very fast.”

  Teagan rose on her sturdy legs, lifted her arms.

  “Alastar, Alastar, brave and free, heed my call and come to me. Run swift, run true to find the one who needs you.”

  Teagan bit her lip, turned to her mother. “Brannaugh helped me with the words. Are they good?”

  “They’re very good.” Young, Sorcha thought. Simple and pure. “Say it twice more. Three is strong magick.”

  Teagan obeyed, then came back to stroke her mother’s hair. “You’ll be well again when we’re home. Brannaugh will make you tea.”

  “Aye, that’s what she’ll do. I’ll be fine again when I’m home.” She thought it was the first time she’d lied to her child. “Find me a good, strong stick. I think I could lean on it and walk a ways.”

  “Alastar will come.”

  Though she doubted it, Sorcha nodded. “We’ll meet him. Find me a sturdy stick, Teagan. We have to be home before dark.”

  Even as Teagan scrambled up, they heard the hoofbeats.

  “He’s coming! Alastar! We’re here, we’re here!”

  She’d called her guide, Sorcha thought, and a sharp stab of pride pierced her fatigue. As Teagan ran forward to meet the horse, Sorcha gathered herself again, pushed painfully to her feet.

  “There you are, a prince of horses.” Grateful, Sorcha pressed her face to Alastar as he nuzzled her. “Can you help me mount?” she asked Teagan.

  “He will. I taught him a trick. I was saving it for when Da comes home. Kneel, Alastar! Kneel.” Giggling now, Teagan swept a hand down.

  The horse bowed his head, then bent his forelegs, and knelt.

  “Oh, my clever, clever girl.”

  “It’s a good trick?”

  “A fine trick. A fine one, indeed.” Grasping the mane, Sorcha pulled herself onto the horse. Nimble as a cricket, Teagan leapt on in front of her.

  “You hold on to me, Ma! Alastar and I will get us home.”

  Sorcha gripped the little girl’s waist, put her trust in the child and the horse. Every stride of the gallop brought pain, but every stride brought them closer to home.

  When they neared the clearing she saw her older children, Brannaugh dragging her grandfather’s sword, Eamon holding a dagger, racing toward them.

  So brave, too brave.

  “Back to the house, back now! Run back!”

  “The bad one came,” Teagan shouted. “And he made himself into a wolf. I threw rocks at him, Eamon, like you did.”

  The children’s voices—the questions, the excitement, the licks of fear—circled like echoes in Sorcha’s head. Sweat soaked her. Once again she grasped Alastar’s mane, lowered herself to the ground. Swayed as the world went gray.

  “Ma’s sick. She needs her tea.”

  “Inside,” Sorcha managed. “Bolt the door.”

  She heard Brannaugh giving orders, clipping them out like a chieftain—“fetch water, stir the fire”—and felt as if she floated inside, into her chair, where her body collapsed.

  A
cool cloth on her head. Warm, potent liquid easing down her throat. A quieting of the pain, a clearing of the mists.

  “Rest now.” Brannaugh stroked her hair.

  “I’m better. You have a strong gift for healing.”

  “Teagan said the wolf burned up.”

  “No. We hurt him, aye, we hurt him, but it lives. He lives.”

  “We’ll kill it. We’ll set a trap and kill it.”

  “It may come to that, when I’m stronger. He has more than he did, this shifting of shapes. I can’t say what price he paid for the power, but it would be dear. Your sister marked him. Here.” Sorcha clutched a hand on her left shoulder. “The shape of a pentagram. Watch for this, be wary of this, and any who bear that mark.”

  “We will. You don’t be fretting now. We’ll make the supper, and you’ll feel stronger for eating, and resting.”

  “You’ll make a charm for me. Exactly as I say. Make the charm, and bring it to me. Supper can wait until that’s done.”

  “Will it make you stronger?”

  “Aye.”

  Brannaugh made the charm, and Sorcha hung it around her neck, next to her heart. She sipped more potion, and though her appetite was small, forced herself to eat.

  She slept, and dreamed, and woke to find Brannaugh keeping watch.

  “Off to bed now. It’s late.”

  “We won’t leave you. I can help you to bed.”

  “I’ll sit here, by the fire.”

  “Then I’ll sit with you. We’re taking turns. I’ll wake Eamon when it’s his, and Teagan will bring you morning tea.”

  Too weary to argue, too proud to scold, Sorcha only smiled. “Is that the way of it?”

  “Until you’re all well again.”

  “I’m better, I promise you. His magick was so strong, so black. It took all I had in me, and more, to stop it. Our Teagan, you’d be proud. So fierce and bright she was. And you, running toward us with your grandda’s sword.”

  “It’s very heavy.”

  The laugh felt good. “He was a big man with a red beard as long as your arm.” On a sigh, she ran her hand over Brannaugh’s head. “If you won’t go to your bed, make a pallet there on the floor. We’ll both sleep awhile.”

  When her child slept, Sorcha added a charm to make Brannaugh’s dreams good and sweet.

  And she turned to the fire. It was time, long past, to call Daithi home. She needed his sword, she needed his strength. She needed him.

  So she opened her mind to the fire, opened her heart to her love.

  Her spirit traveled over the hills and fields, through the night, through woods, over water where the moon swam. She flew across all the miles that separated them to the camp of their clann.

  He slept near the fire with the moonlight like a blanket over him.

  When she settled down beside him, his lips curved, and his arm curled around her.

  “You smell of home fires and wooded glades.”

  “It’s home you must come.”

  “Soon, aghra. Two weeks, no more.”

  “Tomorrow you must ride with all haste. My heart, my warrior.” She cupped his face. “We have need of you.”

  “And I of you.” He rolled over onto the vision of her, lowered his mouth to hers.

  “Not for the bed, though oh, I ache for you. Every day, every night. I need your sword, I need you by my side. Cabhan attacked today.”

  Daithi sprang up, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Are you hurt? The children?”

  “No, no. But nearly. He grows stronger, and I weaker. I fear I can’t hold him.”

  “There is none stronger than you. He will never touch the Dark Witch.”

  Her heart broke at his faith in her, for she could no longer earn it. “I’m not well.”

  “What is this?”

  “I didn’t wish to burden you, and . . . no, my pride. I valued it too much, but now I cast it away. I fear what comes, Daithi. I fear him. I cannot hold him without you. For our children, for our lives, come home.”

  “I will ride tonight. I will bring men with me, and ride for home.”

  “At first light. Wait for the light, for the dark is his. And be swift.”

  “Two days. I will be home with you in two days. And Cabhan will know the bite of my sword. I swear it.”

  “I will watch for you, and wait for you. I am yours in this life and all that come.”

  “Heal, my witch.” He brought her hands to his lips. “It’s all I will ever ask of you.”

  “Come home, and I will heal.”

  “Two days.”

  “Two days.” She kissed him, holding tight and close. And carried the kiss with her as she flew back over the mirror of the moon and the green hills.

  She came back into her body, tired, so tired, but stronger as well. The magick between them flowed rich, flowed true.

  Two days, she thought, and closed her eyes. While he rode to her she would rest, she would let the magick build again. Keep the children close, draw in the light.

  She slept again; she dreamed again.

  And saw in her dream he didn’t wait for the light. He mounted in the moonlight, under the cold stars. His face was fierce as his horse danced over the hard ground.

  His horse lunged forward, far outpacing the mounts of the three men who rode with him.

  Using the moonlight and the stars, Daithi rode for home, for his family, for his woman. For the Dark Witch he loved more than his life.

  When the wolf leaped out of the dark, he barely had time to clear his sword from its sheath. Daithi struck out, but cut through only air as the horse reared. Fog rose like gray walls, trapping him, blocking his men.

  He fought, but the wolf sprang over the blade, time after time, snapping out with its jaws, swiping viciously with claws only to vanish into the fog. Only to charge out from it again.

  She flew to reach him, soaring over those hills again, across the water.

  She knew when those jaws tore, knew when the blood spilled from his heart—from hers. Her tears fell like rain, washing away the fog. Crying his name, she dropped to the ground beside him.

  She tried her strongest spell, her most powerful charm, but his heart would not beat again.

  As she clasped Daithi’s hand in hers, cried to the goddess for mercy, she heard the wolf laugh in the dark.

  * * *

  BRANNAUGH SHIVERED IN SLEEP. DREAMS STALKED HER, FULL of blood and snarls and death. She struggled to outpace them, to break free. She wanted her mother, wanted her father, wanted the sun and warmth of spring.

  But clouds and cold covered her. The wolf stepped out of the fog and into her path. And its fangs dripped red and wet.

  On a muffled cry she shoved up on her pallet and clutched her amulet. Curling her knees up, she hugged them hard, swiped her teary face against her thighs to dry them. She wasn’t a babe to weep over bad dreams.

  It was past time to wake Eamon, and then hope to sleep more calmly in her own cot.

  She turned her head first to check on her mother, and saw the chair empty. Knuckling her eyes, she called softly for her mother as she started to rise.

  And she saw Sorcha lying on the floor between the fire and the loft ladder, still as death.

  “Ma! Ma!” Terror seized her as she sprang over to drop at her mother’s side. Hands shaking, she turned Sorcha over to cradle her mother’s head in her lap. Saying her name over and over like a chant.

  Too white, too still, too cold. Rocking, Brannaugh acted without thought or plan. When the heat surged through her, she poured it into her mother. Those shaking hands pressed hard, hard on Sorcha’s heart as her own head fell back, as her eyes glazed and fixed. The black smoke of them pulled for the light and shot arrows of it into her mother.

  The heat poured out, the cold poured in, until shuddering, she slumped forward. Sky and sea revolved; light and dark swirled. Pain such as she’d never known sliced through her belly, stabbed into her heart.

  Then was gone, leaving only exhaustion.
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  From somewhere far away, she heard her hound baying.

  “No more, no more.” Sorcha’s voice croaked out, harsh and weak. “Stop. Brannaugh, you must stop.”

  “You need more. I will find more.”

  “No. Do as I say. Quiet breaths, quiet mind, quiet heart. Breath, mind, heart.”

  “What’s wrong? What happened?” Eamon came flying down the ladder. “Ma!”

  “I found her. Help me, help me get her to bed.”

  “No, not bed. No time for it,” Sorcha said. “Eamon, let Kathel in, and wake Teagan.”

  “She’s waked, she’s here.”

  “Ah, there’s my baby. Not to fret.”

  “There’s blood. Your hands have blood.”

  “Aye.” Burying her grief, Sorcha stared at her hands. “’Tisn’t mine.”

  “Fetch a cloth, Teagan, and we’ll wash her.”

  “No, not a cloth. The cauldron. Fetch my candles, and book, and the salt. All the salt we have. Build up the fire, Eamon, and Brannaugh make my tea—make it strong.”

  “I will.”

  “Teagan, be a good girl now and pack up what food we have.”

  “Are we going on a journey?”

  “A journey, aye. Feed the stock, Eamon—aye, it’s early yet, but feed them and well, pack all the oats you can for Alastar.”

  She took the cup from Brannaugh, drank deep, drank all. “Now, go pack your things, your clothes, blankets. You’ll take the sword, the dagger, all the coin, the jewels my granny left me. All that she left me. All, Brannaugh. Leave nothing of value. Pack it all, and be quick. Quick!” she snapped, and had Brannaugh dashing away.

  Time, the Dark Witch thought, it came, it went. And now she had so little left. But enough. She would make it enough.

 
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