Dark witch, p.31
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       Dark Witch, p.31

         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts
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  “You’ll never be all you are if you believe that. And it’s a sorrow to me.”

  He walked away, walked out. And that, Branna told herself, was what she needed.

  He was wrong, she told herself. She’d never be all she was, never really be free, as long as she loved him.

  And that was her sorrow.

  * * *

  AT AN HOUR BEFORE MOONRISE THEY GATHERED. Branna lit the ritual candles, tossed ground crystals into the fire so its smoke rose pale and pure blue.

  She took up a silver cup that had come down to her, stepped into the circle they formed.

  “This we drink, one cup for six, from hand to hand and mouth to mouth to fix with wine our unity. Six hearts, six minds as one tonight as we prepare to wage this fight. Sip one, sip all, and show each one here answers the call.”

  The cup passed hand to hand three times before Branna placed it in the center of the circle.

  “Power of light, strong and bright, bless us this night, shield us from sight.”

  Light erupted in the cup, burned like white flame.

  “Now his eyes be blind until this magick I unwind. Not heart nor mind nor form will he see. As we will, so mote it be.”

  She lowered the arms she’d lifted. “While it burns we’re the shadows. Only you, Iona, when you break this vial. Wait,” she added as she pressed it into Iona’s hand. “Wait until you’re on Sorcha’s ground.”

  “I will. Don’t worry.” She slid the vial into her pocket. “Find him,” she said to Fin.

  “So I will. Find, seek, lure.”

  He took a crystal, round as a ball, clear as water, from his own pocket, cupped it in the palm of his hand.

  As he spoke in Irish, the ball began to glow, to lift an inch above his hand. And to revolve, slower, then faster, faster until it blurred with speed.

  “He seeks, blood to blood, mark to mark,” Branna told Iona quietly. “He uses what he is, what they share, to see, to stir. He . . .”

  Fin’s eyes began to gleam, to glow, as unearthly a light as the crystal.

  “Not so deep! He can’t—”

  Connor caught Branna’s arm before she lurched forward. “He knows what he’s about.”

  But for a moment, something dark lived behind the light in Fin’s eyes. Then it was gone.

  “I have him.” His face a mask, Fin closed his fingers over the crystal. “He’ll come.”

  “Where is he?” Boyle demanded.

  “Not far. I gave him your scent,” he told Iona. “He’ll follow it, and you.”

  “Then I’ll take him where we want him.”

  “We’re behind you.” Meara grasped Iona’s arms. “Every one of us.”

  “I know.” She breathed slow, kept her calm. “I believe.”

  She touched her fingers to the hilt of the sword at her side, looked from one to the other, and thought what a wonder it was to have them all, to have what was inside her, to have such a purpose.

  “I won’t let you down,” she said and started for the door.

  “Bloody hell.” In two strides Boyle caught her, whirled her around, crushed his mouth to hers with everything that lived inside him.

  “Take that with you,” he demanded, and set her aside.

  “I will.” And she smiled before she walked out into the soft light of the longest day.

  Alastar waited, pawed the ground at her approach.

  Yeah, she thought, we’re ready, you and I.

  She gripped his mane, hurled herself into the saddle. She closed a hand briefly around her amulet, felt heat pulse from it.

  Ready, she thought again, and let Alastar have his head.

  Faster was better. The others would come as quickly as they could, but the faster she reached her ground, the less time Cabhan could plot, plan, question.

  Wind rushed by her ears. The ground thundered. And they flew.

  When she reached the downed tree, the wall of vines, she drew her sword.

  “I am Iona. I am the Dark Witch. I am the blood. I am one of three, and this is my right.”

  She slashed out. The vines fell with a sound like glass shattering, and she rode through.

  Like the dream she’d had that night at Ashford, she thought. Riding alone through the deep forest, through air so much stiller than it had a right to be, where the light went dim though the sun showered down.

  She saw the ruins ahead, vine– and brush-covered as if it grew out of the trees. She walked the horse toward it, and toward the stone that bore Sorcha’s name.

  Now her skin vibrated. Not nerves, she realized, but power. Energy. Alastar quivered under her, let out a bugle that sounded of triumph.

  “Yes, we’ve been here before. The place of our blood. The place where our power was born.” She dismounted, looped the reins, knowing Alastar would stay with her, stay close.

  She took the vial from her pocket, crushed it under her boot.

  So it would begin.

  From the bag she’d secured to the saddle, she took the flowers first. Simple wood violets, then a small flask holding bloodred wine.

  “For the mother of my mother and hers, and all who lived and died, who bore the gift with its joys and sorrow, back to Teagan who is mine, and the Dark Witch who bore her.”

  She laid the flowers by the stone, poured wine over the ground in tribute.

  Speaking the words of the spell only in her mind, pulling power up from her belly, she took the four white candles from the bag, set them on the ground at the compass points. Next, the crystals, between each point.

  As she laid them, Alastar let out a warning chuff. She saw fingers of fog crawling over the ground.

  We’re with you. Connor’s voice sounded in her ear. Finish the circle.

  She drew her athame, pointed north. Flame sparked on the first candle.

  “You think that can stop me?” Cabhan spoke with amusement. “You come here, where I rule, and play your pitiful white magick.”

  “You don’t rule here.”

  The second candle flamed.

  “See.” He threw his arms high. The stone around his neck flamed with light both dark and blinding. “Know.”

  Something changed. The ground tipped under her feet as she struggled to finish the ritual. The air turned, turned until her head spun with it. The third candle flamed, but she fell to her knees, fighting the terrible sensation of dropping from a cliff.

  The vines drew back from the ruin. The walls began to climb, stone by stone.

  Night fell like a curtain dropped.

  “My world. My time.” The shadows seemed to lift from him. The stone pulsed, a dark heart over his. “And here, you are mine.”

  “I’m not.” She got painfully to her feet, laid a hand on Alastar’s flank as he reared. “I’m Sorcha’s.”

  “She sought my end, gained her own. It’s she who sleeps in the dark. It’s I who live in it. Give me what you have, what weighs on you, what it demands from you, what it takes from you. Give me the power that fits you so ill. Or I take it, and your soul with it.”

  She lit the last candle. If they could come, they would come, she thought. But she couldn’t hear them through the rush in her ears, or sense them through the stench of the fog.

  No retreat, she told herself. And never surrender.

  She drew her sword. “You want it? Come and get it.”

  He laughed, and the sheer delight on his face added a terrible beauty.

  “A sword won’t stop me.”

  “You bleed, so let’s find out.” She punched power into the sword until it flamed. “And I bet you’ll burn.”

  He swept an arm out, and from feet away, threw her back, knocked her to the ground. Winded, she tried to push to her feet. Alastar reared again, screaming in rage as his hooves lashed out.

  She saw Cabhan’s face register pain, and shock with it. Then he hunched, dropped to all fours, and became the wolf.

  It leapt at Alastar, scoring the horse’s side.

  “No!” Like lightning
, Iona surged to her feet, charged.

  Her sword whistled through the air, but the wolf streaked to the side, then barreled into her with a force that propelled her, had her skidding on her back, and her sword flying away.

  The wolf straddled her, jaws snapping. And became a man again.

  “I’ll burn him to cinders,” Cabhan warned. “Hold him back or I set him on fire.”

  “Stop! Alastar, stop!”

  She felt his rage even as he obeyed. And felt the amulet she wore vibrate between her and Cabhan.

  His gaze lowered to it; his lips peeled back in a snarl.

  Then he smiled again, terrifyingly, into her eyes.

  “Sorcha betrayed me with a kiss. I’ll draw what’s in you into me the same way.”

  “I won’t give it to you.”

  “But you will.”

  Pain exploded, unspeakably. She screamed, unable to stop. Red everywhere, as if the world caught fire. She heard Alastar’s screams join hers. Ordered him to run, run, run. If she couldn’t save herself, she prayed she could save him.

  Above all, she would never give up. She would never give her light to the dark.

  “A kiss. You’ve only to give me one kiss, and the pain will vanish, the burden will drop.”

  Somewhere in her frantic mind she realized he couldn’t take it. He could kill her, but he couldn’t take what she was. She had to surrender it.

  Instead she groped, found her athame with a shuddering hand.

  She wept, couldn’t stop that either, but through the screams and sobs she managed one word. “Bleed.”

  And plunged the knife into his side.

  He roared, more fury than pain, and, leaping up, dragged her with him, holding her a foot above the ground by a hand clamped around her throat.

  “You’re nothing! Pale and weak and human. I’ll crush the life out of you, and your power with it.”

  She kicked, tried to call for fire, wind, a flood, but her vision grayed, her lungs burned.

  She heard another roar, and flew, hitting the ground hard enough to shock her bones and clear her vision.

  She saw Boyle, his face a mask of vengeance, pummeling his fists into Cabhan’s face.

  With each hit, flames leapt.

  “Stop.” She couldn’t get the word out, no more than a croak, even as Boyle’s hands burned.

  She managed to gain her knees, swayed as she fought to find her center.

  The man dropped away. The wolf slipped out of Boyle’s hold and bunched for attack.

  The hound streaked into the clearing, snarling, snapping. Hawks dove, talons slicing at the wolf’s back.

  An arm circled her waist, lifted her to her feet. Hands linked with hers.

  “Can you do it?” Branna shouted.

  “Yes.” Even the single word cut her throat like shards of glass.

  The fog thickened, or her vision grayed. But all she could see through it were vague shapes, the flash of fire.

  “We are the three, dark witches we, and stand this ground in unity. Before the longest day departs, we forge all light against the dark. On this ground, in this hour, we join our hands, we join our power. Blood to blood, we call on all who came before, flame to flame, their fires restore. Match with us, your forces free. As we will, so mote it be.”

  Light, blinding, heat churning, and the wind that whirled it all into a maelstrom.

  “Again!” Branna called out.

  Three times three. And as she cast the spell, her hands caught tight with her cousins’, Iona felt she was the fire. Made of heat and flame, and a cold, cold rage that burned in its core.

  Even as she pushed to finish, the fog vanished. She saw blood, smoke, both Fin and Meara at the edge of—not in—the circle, swords in hand. And Boyle, kneeling on the ground, pale as death, his hands raw and blistered.

  Alastar, blood seeping from his wounds, nudged his head against Boyle’s side, while the hound guarded him. Two hawks perched in branches beside the stone cabin.

  “Boyle.” Iona stumbled forward, fell to her knees beside him. “Your hands. Your hands.”

  “They’ll be all right. You’re bleeding. And your throat.”

  “Your hands,” she said again. “Connor, help me.”

  “I’ll see to it. Here now, this isn’t for you. You’re hurt, and I’ll do better without you.”

  “Here, little sister, let me help you.” Fin crouched down as if to lift Iona into his arms.

  “I’ll tend her.” Briskly, Branna took Iona’s arm. “Help Connor with Boyle as he’s taken the worst of it.”

  “His hands were on fire.” When her head spun, Iona simply slid to the ground. “His hands.”

  “Connor and Fin will fix him right up, you’ll see. Quiet now, cousin. Meara, I want his blood. Find something to put it in. The blood, the ash. Look at me now, darling. Look at me, Iona. It’ll hurt a little.”

  “You, too.”

  “Just a little.”

  It did, a little more than a little, then relief, cool and soothing on her throat. Warm, healing down her sides where the bruising ran deep.

  “It’s better. It’s all right. Boyle.”

  “Shh. Hush now. That’ll take a bit longer, but he’s fine, he’s doing fine. Look and see while I finish.”

  Through streaming tears, Iona looked over, saw Boyle’s hands. Still raw, but no longer blackened and blistered. Still, he’d gone gray with the treatment, and the pain.

  “Can’t I help?”

  “They’ve got him. I’ve just your ankle left here. It’s not broken, but it’s badly wrenched.”

  “I wasn’t strong enough.”

  “Hush.”

  “Alastar. He hurt Alastar. He said he’d burn him alive.”

  “He’s cut a bit, that’s all. Why don’t you see to that? See to your horse.”

  “Yes. Yes. He needs me.”

  She gained her feet, walked, a bit drunkenly, to the horse. “You’re so brave. I’m so sorry.”

  Swallowing tears, she laid her hands on the first gash, and began to heal it.

  “I’ve used two of the vials from your bag.” Meara handed them to Branna. “One for the blood, the other for the ash. I felt a bit like one of those forensic types.” Then she let out a shuddering breath. “Oh God, Branna.”

  “We won’t talk of it here. We need to get home.”

  “Can we?”

  “I got us here. I’ll get us back.”

  “Where did he go, bloody bastard?”

  “I don’t know. We hurt him, and he lost blood—plenty of it—but it’s not finished. I saw him slide away, using the fog, into the fog. Our fire scorched, and well, but didn’t take him. It was not finished tonight, for all we thought it would be. I’m taking us back,” she called out. “Are you ready?”

  “Christ, yes.” Fin put an arm around Boyle, helped him stand.

  “I’m fine now, I’m fine. Help her get us home, the both of you.”

  Nudging the other men aside, Boyle walked to Iona. “Let me see you.”

  “I’m okay. Branna took care of it. Alastar. I can’t heal this scar. He’s scarred.”

  Boyle studied the slash of white over the gray flank. “A battle scar, worn with pride. We’re going home now, all of us. Up you go. And none of that,” he added as the tears rolled. “Stop that now.”

  “Not yet.” She leaned forward, wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck as the ground tilted, as the air turned and turned.

  And kept her silence as they left the clearing, and the ruins.

  EPILOGUE

  IONA ACCEPTED THE WHISKEY, WITH GRATITUDE, AND CURLED INTO the corner of the living room sofa. The fire snapped, but brought comfort instead of fear and pain.

  “I’m sorry. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t good enough. He rolled right over me.”

  “Bollocks to that.” Connor tipped more whiskey in his own glass. “Bloody, buggering bollocks to that.”

  “Well said,” Branna agreed. “’Tis I who’s sorry. Every st
ep in place, every detail. But one. I never thought of him slipping through time like that, not on command. I didn’t know he could so quickly, and with us so close.”

  “No.” Fin shook his head when she glanced at him. “I never saw it coming. He’s too clever by half, changing the ground to one where his power burned stronger than we knew.”

  “And where we couldn’t get to Iona. Where she was alone, after all.” Boyle reached over, took her hand, held it firmly in his.

  “But you came, all of you.”

  “Not as fast as I would like. It’s not enough to know where, but when. We might not have found you, but you called so strong. You believed, just as you said, and you called. You finished the circle, even with all that, you finished the circle, opened the power, and we could find you. And nearly took him.”

  For a moment, Branna closed her eyes. “Nearly, I swear it was close.”

  “It’s no fault of yours,” Connor told Iona, “or anyone’s come to that. It’s true enough we didn’t finish him, but we gave him a hell of a fight, and we hurt him. He won’t forget the pain we gave him this night.”

  “And he’ll be more prepared for next time.” Meara lifted her hands. “It’s true, and needs to be said, so we don’t walk into that kind of trap again.”

  “That’s fine, but . . . you’re burned.”

  Meara glanced at her wrists, the backs of her hands, and the scatter of
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