Year one, p.32
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       Year One, p.32

         Part #1 of Chronicles of The One series by Nora Roberts
 

  musicians practicing and hammers striking nails. In the hall outside the kitchen, Bryar and others worked with groups of children to make Chinese lanterns—red, white, and blue—and paper stars that bore the names of loved ones lost.

  As the blue washed away the pink, Lana stepped outside, moved to see so many gathered while a newly formed choir sang “Amazing Grace.”

  She watched Bill and Will Anderson hang their stars on the old oak at the edge of the green. How they stood with Arlys when she hung hers.

  And so many others who stepped forward with those symbols until they crowded the lower branches.

  It touched her to see Starr step forward to hang her own.

  The lanterns the faeries would light as dusk circled the park. Garlands of flowers decked lampposts and newly constructed arbors. Grills formed a line in a designated cooking area.

  By noon, musicians played in a gazebo volunteers had finished painting only the night before. Those grills smoked.

  Crafts lined tables—all up for barter. Kids got their faces painted or took pony rides. Others played boccie or horseshoes.

  The gardens offered a banquet—tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, summer corn (Rachel said the baby was as long as a healthy ear of corn now).

  The weather, bright and hot, had many sprawled in the shade, drinking cups of the gallons and gallons of sun tea the community kitchen provided.

  She heard talk of putting together a softball team, one for adults, one for kids, and using the Little League field half a mile outside the town proper.

  More talk of expanding the farm, moving it to one of the farms a mile out.

  Good talk, she thought, hopeful talk.

  She danced with Max over the green grass in a summer dress that billowed over her belly. Basking in the sunlight, she gossiped with Arlys while Eddie jammed on his harmonica. On the swings, Fred and Katie swayed back and forth with babies on their laps.

  Was she happy? Max had asked her a few weeks before. On this day, at this moment, she could give him an unqualified yes.

  She lifted a hand to wave at Kim and Poe, and sighed. “We’ll do this every year, won’t we?”

  “I think that’s a definite yes. And,” Arlys added, “we’ll put something together for the holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah.”

  “Yes! Winter solstice.” Lana rubbed circles over her belly. “It’ll be her first.”

  Arlys lifted her face, shook back her hair—a sassy swing with highlights again thanks to Clarice. “You still haven’t come up with a name for the baby?”

  “We’re playing around but nothing’s sticking yet. Last summer, I was just moving in with Max. It seemed so huge, so amazing. Now, here we are, expecting a child. Max is playing horseshoes. I’d bet my entire supply of baking powder he’s never played that before in his life.”

  She let out a laugh when he threw one, had it pause and revolve in midair, backtrack, then drop neatly onto the post.

  “And he cheats!”

  The maneuver had Carla—his partner—cheering, and Manning—one of his opponents—erupting in mock outrage. Max lifted his hands in an innocent gesture, then glanced at Lana. Grinned, winked.

  “He was also so serious about the Craft. He’d lighten up with me, but he would never have played like that before. It’s good to see him relax. I’m going to go pick more corn—and give the other team a little boost on the way.”

  “I’ll give you a hand.”

  Lana pushed herself up, wandered toward the horseshoe pitch. More corn, definitely, she thought as she scanned tables. And tomatoes. She’d check on the supply of wild turkey and venison burgers.

  But first she guided Manning’s flung horseshoe to the post, had it execute a trio of flips before hitting with a clanging ring. Gave Max a grin and a wink.

  Manning let out a laughing hoot, did a little dance, then blew her a kiss.

  Yes, she thought, it was good, so good, to just play.

  “Hey.” Will ran up, tugged Arlys’s arm. “We need another for boccie.”

  “I was just going to—”

  “Oh, go ahead. I’m an expert corn picker now.”

  “I don’t know anything about boccie.”

  “Good, neither do I.” Will grabbed her hand, glanced at the stars swaying on the branches. “It’s a good day.” On impulse he leaned over, kissed Lana’s cheek. Then turned Arlys to him, kissed her, slow and easy, on the mouth. “A really good day.”

  Lana smiled all the way into the corn.

  It smelled green and earthy, and the music, the voices, the ring of metal on metal followed her as she twisted ears of corn from the stalks. She heard children laughing, a magical sound to her ear, carried on the gentle sigh of the summer breeze.

  Everything felt so peaceful, the blue sweep of sky, the tall green stalks, the brush of them against her skin.

  She stood a moment, her arms filled with corn, giving thanks for what she had.

  The baby kicked—a fast flurry of kicks—that nearly had her bobbling the ears. She heard one of Katie’s babies cry out, long and shrill over the music and voices. As she turned to start back, something fluttered to the ground in front of her.

  She glanced down. Froze.

  It was scorched, its edges curled and blackened, but she recognized the photo of her and Max together, the photo she’d packed before they’d left New York. The photo that had been in the house in the mountains when …

  Overhead, in a sky going thick, going gray, black crows circled.

  “Max!” Corn thudded to the ground as she ran, as she shoved through the verdant stalks. As she heard the first cracks of gunfire.

  Screams echoed as she fought her way clear.

  People ran, scattered, dived for cover, returned fire.

  She saw Carla sprawled on the ground, eyes wide and staring. And Manning, oh God, Manning bleeding on the soft dirt of the horseshoe pitch.

  Her own scream clogged in her throat as Kurt Rove smashed the butt of his rifle into Chuck’s face.

  All around her men fired guns and arrows indiscriminately as men and women she knew grabbed children to shield them or to rush them to safety.

  Rainbow, who taught yoga every morning, threw a shimmering shield over a woman with a toddler. Then her body pitched forward from a bullet in the back.

  Lana saw a man—tall, lean, his golden mane of hair rippling— lift a rifle, aiming it up as Fred rose, wings furiously batting, one of the babies wrapped in her arms.

  In seconds, only seconds, the world changed.

  Lana had no weapon but her power, and threw it out, all instinct. The rifle aimed at Fred and the child flew out of the man’s hands. And he turned his crazed blue gaze on her.

  “There.” He pointed. The man beside him, dark and muscular, the purity tattoo bold on his biceps, lifted his hands. He held a gun in each. “Kill the witch!” he shouted.

  Even as Lana lifted her hands to fight, to protect her child, thunder blasted. The ground shook with it.

  “Ours!”

  Rising behind the building, wings scorched, faces scarred, Eric and Allegra loomed.

  Everything seemed to stop. An illusion as she heard the screams, the gunfire, even the slicing swish of the stalks as some ran to hide there.

  They’d survived. They lived. And she saw death in their eyes.

  She gathered all she had to fight.

  Max sprinted to her, shoved her back. “Run!”

  “Where?” Spewing black bolts toward the sky, Eric let out a laugh. “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Step aside, brother. We don’t want you this time.”

  “We want what’s inside her.” With a flash of wings, Allegra swooped lower. Max thrust out, pushed Lana back.

  “Run. Save our daughter.”

  “Together. We’re stronger. We have more.” Lana gripped Max’s hand.

  “There’s no need for this, Eric, for any of it,” Max shouted. “You’re aligning yourself with a madman who hunts our kind. He’ll turn on you. They’ll all t
urn on you.”

  “Wow, I never thought of that.” He shot Allegra a surprised look. “Maybe we should think about this. Except … Yeah, I forgot one thing. You tried to kill me. I was wrong, Max. We do want you. Dead.”

  “Both of them. The three of them!” Pale hair flying, Allegra shouted. “We call the dark. We rule the dark! And with it cut off the light.”

  As Lana did with Max, Allegra gripped Eric’s hand. Snarling thunder, black lightning. With Max, Lana blocked the blows, shoved them back.

  And felt the power quake the ground under her feet.

  Blood bloomed on Max’s arm where a bolt slipped through. Across the field, others ran toward them. Flynn and Lupa, Jonah, Aaron.

  For a moment, her hope leaped. Together, all of them, they’d push back the dark.

  “They’re coming to help. We just have to—”

  Lana saw the wave of black, felt the first biting edge of it before Max spun her around. His eyes met hers, held hers as he cloaked her, cloaked their child with his body.

  He took the full force of the hate, of the dark. The shock jolted through him into her as they flew together, fell together into the stalks. Blood ran from the gash where that keen edge caught her arm.

  Breath gone, head spinning, she crawled free, rolled, tried to drag Max to safety.

  He lay covered with blood from countless wounds, his skin scored from burns.

  “No. No. Max.” She knew, even as she dragged his body into her arms, even as she pressed her face to his, she knew he was gone.

  Gone. Taken. Murdered.

  The rage, the grief, the roaring fury spewed up in her. Covered in his blood, spilling her own, she released it on a scream that cleaved the air like a blade.

  It gushed out wild and red against the oily black.

  She heard her scream answered with howls of pain.

  Run. He’d told her to run, but she hadn’t listened. He’d told her to save their child, but he’d given his life to save them both.

  Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Choking on sobs, she dragged Max’s gun belt free. Tenderly, she drew the ring from his finger, pushed it onto her thumb. She kissed his face, his lips, his hands.

  Save the child, whatever the cost.

  She heard his voice in her head, in her heart and, sobbing, pushed through the stalks toward the forest. She began to run.

  A movement to her right had her whirling, hand thrown up to fight, to defend. Starr flowed out of the tree.

  “You’re hurt.”

  Lana could only shake her head.

  “You hurt them more.”

  As Starr gestured back, Lana looked toward the park. Whatever had exploded out of her, that mad, red, raging grief, had leveled some of the attackers. She saw no sign of Eric or Allegra other than a thin haze of smoke smearing the sky.

  It twisted the raw edges of her already shattered heart to see Arlys limping toward Carla’s body, Rachel kneeling beside an unconscious and bloodied Chuck. Others she knew, cared for, rushing to help, or racing toward the street, guns in hand.

  “Katie, the babies?”

  “Jonah got them inside. They killed Rainbow. She was good. They came for you. For her,” Starr said, reaching out and for the first time in weeks touching anyone, touched a hand to Lana’s child.

  “I can’t stay. They’ll come back. I can’t … They killed Max.”

  “I’m sorry. He was good.” Starr bowed her head. “They want us dead, all of us, but the Savior most.”

  “She’s not the Savior,” Lana said fiercely. “She’s my daughter.”

  “She’s both. I could hear them.” Now Starr pressed a hand to her head. “Hear all the hate. It hurts my head, so I ran and hid, like I did with my mother. I didn’t fight, but I will next time. I will. They’ll help, they’ll protect you. Her.”

  “I have to protect her. I can’t stay. They’ll try again. They’ll come back and try again.”

  Starr nodded. “Then you have to run. You have to hide. I can still hear them in my head. I’ll put Max’s name on the tree for you.”

  Blinded by tears, Lana ran. She ran into all the dreams that had haunted her nights.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  Lana kept off the main roads for days. She took shelter where she could, scavenging remote houses for clothes and supplies. Along with clothes she found a chain and threaded it through Max’s ring to wear around her neck.

  She ate what she could find, and worried about the baby.

  Whenever she saw crows circling overhead or heard their call, she changed direction.

  Once, exhausted, she dropped down at the base of a dead tree, too steeped in fatigue and grief to go on. Staring at the sky through its skeletal branches, she drifted away, she dreamed. Dreamed of a slim young woman with gray eyes and black hair telling her to get up, to move, to keep going.

  So Lana got up, moved, kept going.

  One terrible day blurred into every terrible night.

  With no sense of time or distance, she slept in an abandoned car on the side of the road, and woke in the shimmer of dawn to the sound of engines.

  Her first instinct was to call for help, but the stronger one ordered her to stay still and quiet. The stronger one had her skin shivering as those engines stopped.

  Car doors opened, slammed. Men’s voices floated through the windows she’d left open in hopes of a breeze.

  “We ought to go back to that shit-hole town, level it. Somebody there knows where the bitch is.”

  “The Rev says she ain’t there, she ain’t there.”

  She heard footsteps coming closer, tightened her grip on the gun she slept with. Then the distinctive sound of a zipper, the sound of water striking asphalt.

  “Waste of gas, you ask me, and if those two freaks want her so bad, they should’ve taken her out when they had the chance. Instead we lost six good men. We’re supposed to be killing freaks not working with them.”

  “Don’t see nobody asking you. The Rev knows what he’s doing. He’s got a plan, and I expect we’ll be taking those freaks out after we do the woman. Fucking witch. I got a score to settle with her now.”

  “Aw, did she mess up your pretty face when she cut loose?”

  “Fuck you, Steed.”

  A quick laugh, the jerk of a zipper. “What I know is the freaks are hurting more than you, which is why we’re driving all over hell and back looking for some knocked-up demon whore.”

  “I find her first, I’m putting a knife straight through her and the brat inside her.”

  “Witches have to hang or burn.”

  “That’ll come. We oughta go through these couple of cars here, see if there’s anything worth taking.”

  “Forget that. We got a gas mart about twenty miles east. Better pickings.”

  Lana kept her grip tight on the gun as she felt the car rock.

  “Piece of shit anyway.”

  She held her breath as the footsteps moved on, as doors opened and slammed again. She lay still as an engine roared to life, tires squealed.

  She counted the knocks of her heart one by one even after the car sped off, as silence fell again.

  “I wouldn’t have let them touch you,” she murmured as she crawled out of the backseat on trembling legs. “East. They’re going east, so we’ll go west.”

  But not on foot. However long she’d walked and wandered, she hadn’t put enough distance between her child and those who wanted to harm her.

  She’d risk the road, for now she’d risk it.

  She got behind the wheel, laid the gun on the seat beside her. It took a moment to gather herself, to pull up the power she’d set aside since the day it had ripped through her in a red, killing rage.

  When she held her hand out, the engine didn’t roar to life. It sputtered, knocked, caught. With the sun rising behind her, she drove.

  The sun hung high when the car died. Leaving it where it stopped, she walked again with mountains rising around her.

  Time blurred, walking, driv
ing when she found another car, scavenging for food, for water. Though she asked herself how far would be far enough, she avoided any towns where people might have gathered.

  How would she know if they held friend or enemy?

  She closed away her old life, killed rabbit and squirrel, dressed them, roasted the meat over a fire made by power to feed herself and her baby.

  She who’d once believed food could be, should be, art, ate to live, ate to feed what lived inside her.

  Her world became trees, rocks, sky, endless roads, the pitiful thrill of finding a house that had fresh clothes, boots that nearly fit.

  Comfort became feeling the baby move inside her. Joy became finding a peach tree and tasting the sweet, fresh fruit, having the juice run down a throat parched from the summer heat.

  Safety became hearing no human voice but her own, seeing human shape only in her own shadow.

  In those weeks since New Hope, she became a nomad, a wanderer, a hermit with no plan except movement, food, shelter.

  Until.

  She topped a rise thick with trees, then immediately crouched for cover.

  A house sat on land that gently rolled, then flattened again. On the flat an expansive garden spread at summer peak. She dragged at the pack she’d scavenged, pulled out binoculars.

  Tomatoes, red and ripe, peas, beans, peppers, carrots. Rows of lettuce, cabbage, hillocks of squashes, eggplant. The rising field of corn brought back the scent of blood, of death.

  Of Max.

  She curled up a moment, fighting off waves of sorrow and grief, then made herself lift the glasses again.

  A couple of horses stood together, fenced off from a black-and-white cow, another fence line and black cows—beef cows along with a calf.

  She scanned over a pen where five pigs lolled.

  Chickens! The idea of eggs nearly brought tears to her eyes.

  The house itself stood square and sturdy, simple white with a wide porch. A small, traditional barn stood cheerfully red.

  She skimmed over a shed, a small, squat silo, a pair of windmills, a greenhouse, some ornamental trees and shrubs, what she thought might be a beehive. Beyond it more fields. Wheat, she thought, wheat, and maybe hay.

  Obviously not abandoned, she thought, and, as a truck sat outside, someone was probably inside.

  Eggs, fresh vegetables, fruit trees.

  She could wait.

 
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