Year one, p.36
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       Year One, p.36

         Part #1 of Chronicles of The One series by Nora Roberts
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  “I need to know something more personal about you.”

  “Weird, but June second.”

  “Your middle name.”

  He smiled a little. “James.”

  “The first time you had sex.”

  “Come on.”

  “I’m serious. You’re about to study my vagina.” She arched her eyebrows when he winced. “If you’re going to study it, you should be able to handle the name for it. And compared to that, I asked a casual question.”

  “I was sixteen. Before you ask, her name was Jessica Hobbs, and we fumbled through it one night in my thirdhand pickup on the side of the lane. Second time was better for both of us.”

  “All right.” She looked toward the window. “Did you let the dogs back in? It’s really blowing out there.”

  “Yeah, they’re in. Sleeping in my room. Do you want—”

  She pushed up on a gasp. “Here it comes.”

  He lifted the blanket, gently shifted her legs so the flats of her feet sat on the bed.

  Don’t think, don’t react, he ordered himself. He’d seen cows calve, mares foal. He’d … Holy God.

  “I don’t see her yet, so we’ve got some time.”

  He dampened a cloth, wiped at her sweaty face, and wondered why the female of any species agreed to the process of perpetuating it.

  Three insane hours later, he knew damn well there had to be a better system. Technology, medical science should’ve found a way. As the contractions came harder, closer, he wiped at her sweat with his good hand. She’d pretty much crushed the bones in the other gripping it each time the pain peaked.

  He fed her ice chips like the book suggested, ran down for more between bouts. Every few contractions he checked for the money shot, and wondered if he’d ever be able to have sex with a woman again.

  He breathed with her as the wind screamed outside, as her pain-glazed eyes stared into his—as he sacrificed the future use of his right hand—Jesus, the woman had a grip.

  Toward hour four she collapsed back against the mound of pillows, the ring she wore on a chain glinting between her breasts.

  “Why won’t she come out!”

  “The book says the first one especially can take awhile.” At a loss, he brushed the sweat-dampened hair back from her face. “I remember my mom saying I took about twelve hours.”

  He hadn’t appreciated his mother enough, not nearly enough.

  “Twelve? Twelve?”

  He understood he’d taken the wrong tack when she reared up, teeth bared, gripped the front of his shirt, hauling him closer, and snarled, “Do something!”

  “You need to stay calm. We’re going to get through this.”

  “We? We? Get me some pliers, get me some damn pliers so I can yank a couple of your teeth out without Novocain, then you can say we. Don’t tell me to stay calm, you fucking lunatic … Oh God. Oh God, here it comes!”

  “Breathe, breathe. Come on, babe. I’m going to check. Keep breathing. Holy shit, I see her head! I see her head. She’s got hair.” For some reason that delighted him, and he grinned as he looked up while Lana blew out breaths.

  “Then pull her out! Just pull her out!”

  Then she collapsed again on a long moan. Her eyes shut.

  “You really saw her head?”

  “Yeah. Hair looks dark. It’s wet, but it looks dark.”

  Shifting, he dumped some of the ice in a cloth to cool it, stroked it over her face. “Okay, listen up. You’re doing great. I know it hurts. I don’t know why the hell it has to hurt so much. It’s a crap system, but we’re getting closer to the payoff. You can do this.”

  “I can do this. Sorry about the ‘fucking lunatic.’”

  “It’s okay. I feel like one.”

  “Well, you’re not, and in case I call you one again, or worse, I’m telling you now, you’re a hero. You are,” she said when he shook his head. “I know heroes. Oh, fuck!”

  He’d been in combat. He’d led men, lost men, killed men. Nothing had prepared him for the rigors of helping a laboring woman as she fought to push a child into the world.

  He knelt on the bed, bracing her feet against his hand, pressing his weight against them as she bore down, time after time.

  That fierceness pulsed from her now, sharpening her eyes, glowing on her face—and her cries were those of war, not of pain. When sweat soaked through his shirt, he stripped it off, tossed it aside.

  Like Lana, he wore a chain, and he carried a medal bearing the image of Michael the Archangel.

  “Breathe it out, breathe it out.” He swiped his forearm over his brow as she lay back and gathered herself. “We’re really close.”

  Lana curled up, gulped in air. Pushed while the first rumbles of thunder joined the howling wind.

  “There’s her head. Jesus, Lana, look. There’s her head. No, pant, don’t push. Wait, pant, don’t push. Okay, yeah.” Carefully, he lifted the cord from around the baby’s neck. “Let’s get the rest of her out here. Ready?”

  Tears mixed with sweat as she rode the birth pangs, watched Simon guide one shoulder, then the other.

  The room, the night sky burst with light. On the mantel over the little gas fire, the candles flashed to flame.

  On a mother’s fierce call, the baby slid into Simon’s hands. And with her first breath, loosed a cry like triumph.

  “I’ve got her.” Stunned, awed, overwhelmed, Simon stared down at the wriggling infant. “I’ve got her. Wow.”

  “She’s beautiful. Oh, isn’t she beautiful!”

  As Lana reached out, Simon gave her the child. “Damn right she is. You gotta hold her head lower, the book said. Drains the fluids. I’m gonna clean her up some, okay? And we need to keep her warm.”

  Laughing, weeping, Lana pressed her lips to the infant’s cheek. “It’s my baby. She’s here. She’s beautiful.” Lightning flashed again as she looked at Simon. “Out of me, into your hands, and into mine. She’s yours, too.”

  Because he couldn’t speak, he nodded.

  Dealing with the practicalities steadied him. Birth was a messy business, and by the time he’d cleaned up, the sun shimmered pink through the windows. And the baby nursed at her mother’s breast.

  That was a picture he would carry in his head for the rest of his life.

  “How about I scramble up some eggs, get you that tea we never got around to?”

  “I could eat.” She stroked a finger over the baby’s hair. Max’s dark hair. “I don’t have the words, Simon. I just don’t have them.”

  “What are you going to call her?”

  “Fallon. She’s Fallon. Born in the Year One. Conceived and saved by one man, delivered into the hands of another. I know she’ll honor them both. I know it.”

  He brought her food, made sure she was comfortable before going out to deal with the stock. The fields would wait.

  * * *

  He checked on them, found them sleeping, and took the time to grab a shower where he braced his hands against the tile while the water beat on him and tried to sort out his feelings.

  Too many to sort.

  He went out to the barn, brought back the project he’d worked on in the evenings for weeks.

  The cradle stood waist high, built with pine he’d stained a deep, rich brown. It rocked gently at the push of his hand.

  The baby opened her eyes. The dark, somehow magickal infant blue seemed to see straight into him.

  “Man,” he murmured, using a fingertip to stroke her cheek. “You look like you know everything there is and more. I’m going to catch a couple hours of sack time myself. So…”

  What if they needed him?

  With a shrug, he stretched out on the bed beside Lana.

  If they needed him, he thought as he drifted off, he’d be right there. The baby whimpered, had him blinking his eyes open again.

  “Don’t wake her up, okay?” he whispered, gave the tiny rump a couple of awkward pats. “In her place, I’d sleep a month.”

  When she wh
impered again, stirring restlessly, he shifted.

  “Okay, let’s try this.” He gathered her up, and when she curled against his chest, rubbed her back. “Yeah, that’s better. That’s better. That’s my girl.”

  As he slept, Fallon watched him. Knew him.

  EPILOGUE

  On the last day of the first year Lana stood at the window watching a light, pretty fall of snow. She cuddled Fallon as she wondered what the New Year would bring.

  A year before she’d been with Max at a party in SoHo, drinking wine, laughing, dancing while thousands gathered in Times Square to watch the ball drop.

  She thought of Max often. She had only to look at Fallon, the already thick raven-dark hair, the eyes slowly turning from infant blue to smoky gray.

  The pang had lessened, and the baby was part of the healing.

  So, she knew, was Simon.

  Just as she knew his feelings for her, as she knew his unquestionable love for the baby.

  She’d end this year, this first year, with memories of the man she’d loved, memories she’d always hold precious. And she’d begin the next giving her heart to the man she’d come to love.

  “You’re the link between us, my baby.” She brushed her lips over Fallon’s hair. She lifted the baby high, making her gurgle and kick her legs. “You’re the everything.”

  She heard the dogs bark and, lowering the baby, saw a man on horseback riding down the lane toward the house.

  Fear came first. Would it always?

  She ran to get the sling she’d made, secured Fallon in it to free her hands before she retrieved the shotgun. Ready to protect, defend, she watched as Simon walked toward the horseman.

  The man dismounted. He wore a long, dark coat, held the bay’s reins in one gloved hand. He wore no hat, and snow fell over his wavy mane of hair. His beard, trim and dark like his hair, carried a white streak.

  They spoke. Simon glanced toward the house, then left the man standing in the snow with his horse.

  “Who is he?” Lana demanded when Simon opened the front door. “What does he want?”

  “He says his name is Mallick. He says he’s come to pay tribute to The One and her mother, and won’t come in without your invitation. He claims he has things to tell you. He’s not armed.”

  “He knows about the baby?”

  “He knew the night she was born, Lana. He knew the hour. He knows her name. He says he’s sworn to her. I believe him.” Simon took the shotgun from her. “But I’ll tell him to go if you don’t want to talk to him.”

  “He has power,” she said. “I feel it. He’s letting me feel it so I understand he won’t use it to harm. I wish I didn’t have to talk to him. I wish she was only a baby, my baby. But…”

  Lana stepped to the door, looked out. “Please, come in.”

  “Thank you. Is there a place my horse can rest out of the weather? We’ve traveled a long way.”

  “I’ll take care of it.” Simon brushed a hand over Fallon’s hair, ran it down to give Lana’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Nobody’s going to hurt her.”

  “Bring him into the kitchen. I’ll make him something to eat.”

  She heated soup, made tea, warmed bread. And steeled herself when Simon brought Mallick in.

  “Blessings on you,” Mallick said. “And on the light you’ve brought to the world.”

  “There’s food.”

  “And kindness. May I sit?”

  She nodded, but kept one arm protectively around the baby in the sling. “How do you know about my daughter?”

  “Her coming has been written, sung, foretold. One year ago today, the fabric ripped, the scales tipped when the blood of the damned defiled holy ground. So the purge followed, and magick strikes back. You have nothing to fear from me.”

  “Then why am I so afraid?”

  “You’re a mother. What mother doesn’t fear for her child, especially one who has hints of the child’s destiny. May I eat? I’ve fasted three days in honor of The One.”

  “Yes. I’m sorry.”

  “Here.” Simon lifted Fallon out of the sling. She immediately babbled at him, tugging at his hair. Then she looked solemnly at Mallick.

  “She still remembers some of the waiting time, and sees some of what’s to come. Knows these times as much as the here and now. You see that, too,” he said to Lana.

  Heavy with the weight of destiny, Lana sat. “Is there no choice for her?”

  “Oh, she’ll have many choices, as do we all. If Max had chosen to go north instead of south, if you had chosen to stay rather than to think first of the child and your friends, if Simon had chosen to turn you away, we would all be somewhere else now. Instead we’re here, and I break my fast with this excellent soup.”

  He studied Fallon as he ate. “She’ll be a great beauty—that is not a choice, of course. She takes much from you, from her birth father. You’ll teach her what you know, as her life father will teach her. As will I, when the time comes.”

  “You?”

  “It’s my task. And my choice. Let me comfort you first. For thirteen years she will be safe. They will hunt, they will scourge the land, but they won’t find her. When you see me again, you must entrust her to me for two years.”

  “I won’t—”

  “It will be your choice, and hers. Two years to teach her what I know, to train her to become what she was born to be. In those years, the world will burn and bleed. Some will build, some will destroy. How much easier it is to tear apart than to mend. How many years beyond those before she’s ready, before she takes up sword and shield, I can’t see. But without her and those she leads, the suffering is endless.”

  “And if we say no,” Simon demanded. “That’s the end of it?”

  “You have thirteen years to weigh the choice. To prepare to make it. As does she. I have gifts for her.”

  He turned his hand over, and held a pure, white candle. “Only she can light it, and it will guide her through the dark.” He set it down, once again opened his hand. Held a ball of crystal. “Only she can see what it holds, and it will show her the way.”

  He set it beside the candle. “And…” He held a candy-pink teddy bear. “Because not all should be duty. I hope it brings her comfort and joy. Know she’ll have my sword, my fist, my power, always. I’m honored to be the tutor, the trainer, the protector of Fallon Swift. Thank you for the food.”

  He vanished.

  Simon took a full step back with the baby. “He just … Who does that? Can you do that?”

  “I’ve never tried.”

  “Maybe don’t. And despite the vanishing act, nobody’s going to take her if we say screw you. Nobody’s going to make us turn her over to some wizard for a couple years in some magickal boot camp.”

  “I knew when I was carrying her,” Lana murmured. “She knew. Thirteen years. She’ll be safe.”

  “I’ll keep her safe every day of my life.”

  “I know it. I know.” She rose, turned to him. “The day she was born, I woke up and you were sleeping beside me, exhausted, and you were holding her. And I knew. You’d made her a cradle with your own hands, thinking of her even before she was born. And I knew.

  “He called her Fallon Swift. Will you give her your name?”

  “I … sure. I’d give her anything, but—”

  “I loved Max. And she will, too. I’ll tell her everything I can about him.”

  “Of course you will.”

  “What led me here, Simon? Was it her?” She stepped closer, smiling when Fallon gripped her finger, tried gnawing on it. “Was it me? Was it Max, pushing me toward someone who’d love and protect? Who he could trust and respect. Maybe it was all of that. Maybe it was something in you pulling us here.

  “You’re her father, too. You’re the father who walks her at night, who’ll help teach her to walk and talk. Who’ll worry about her, be proud of her. She’s so lucky to have two good men as fathers. She has Max’s name. I’d like her to have yours.”

  “S
he’s got it.” Emotion all but drowned him. “I’m proud to give it to her.”

  “Fallon Swift.” Lana lifted the chain, Max’s ring, from around her neck. “This I’ll save for her now.” She laid it beside the gifts on the table. “And this…” She drew her wedding ring off her left hand, slipped it onto her right. “I’ll wear to honor the man I loved. Can you accept that?”

  “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

  He wouldn’t reach for her, she thought, wouldn’t cross that line. Because he understood honor. Because he lived honorably.

  So she reached, she crossed, she touched a hand to his cheek as she rose up, leaned in, laid her lips on his. “I’m lucky to have loved and been loved by a good man. Lucky to love and be loved by another. Do you love me?”

  Fallon snuggled her head on his shoulder, and Simon was lost. “I think since I caught you with an egg in your hand. I can wait,” he began, but she kissed him again.

  This time, he pulled her in, the baby between them, and let himself feast.

  “The year’s ending,” she told him. “The terrible, miraculous, bitter, and joyful year. I want to start the next one with you. I want to look toward all the next ones with you. I want to be your family.”

  She felt the joy of it when he held her, the blessed heat of it when their lips met again. Life to be lived.

  The child bounced between them, cooing. Joyful.

  And waving her hand out, set the candle to flame.

 
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