Dark witch, p.4
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       Dark Witch, p.4

         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts
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  She sat quiet while her children did her bidding. And built her strength, amassed her power.

  When Brannaugh came down, Sorcha stood straight and tall. Her skin held warmth and color, her eyes focus and energy.

  “You’re well!”

  “No, my darling, well I’m not, nor will be again.” She held up a hand before Brannaugh could speak. “But strong is what I am, for this time and for this need. I will do what I must, and so will you.” She looked to her son, her baby girl. “So will all of you. Before the sun rises, you will go. You will keep to the woods, go south. Do not use the road until you are well away. Find my cousin Ailish, the Clann O’Dwyer, and tell her the tale. She will do what she can.”

  “We will all go.”

  “No, Eamon. I will bide here. You must be strong and brave, protect your sisters, and they protect you. I would not survive the journey.”

  “I will make you well,” Brannaugh insisted.

  “’Tis beyond you. ’Tis meant. But I do not leave you alone or helpless. What I am, what I have will live in you. One day you will come back, for this is home, and home is the source. I cannot give you your innocence, but I will give you power.

  “Stand with me, for you are my heart and soul, my blood and bone. You are my all. And now I cast the circle, and no dark shall enter.”

  Flame circled the floor and, at the flick of her hand, leapt under the cauldron. Looking down at her hands again, she sighed once, then stepped forward.

  “This is your father’s blood.” She opened her hands over the cauldron, and the blood poured. “And these are my tears, and yours. He rode to protect us, rode home as I asked him. A trap, set by Cabhan, using my fear, my weakness. He took your father’s life, as he will take mine. The life, but not the spirit, not the power.”

  She knelt, enfolded her weeping children. “I would comfort you in every moment I have left, but there is no time for grieving. Remember him who made you, who loved you, and know I go to be with him, and watch over you.”

  “Don’t send us away.” Teagan sobbed on her mother’s shoulder. “I want to stay with you. I want Da.”

  “You’ll take the light in me with you. I will always be with you.” With hands now clean and white, Sorcha brushed tears from her daughter’s cheek. “You, my bright light, my hope. You, my brave son.” She kissed Eamon’s fingers. “My heart. And you, my steady, searching one.” She cupped Brannaugh’s face. “My strength. Carry me with you. And now, we work this spell together. Stand with me! Say as I say, do as I do.”

  She held out her hands.

  “With blood and tears we spill our fears.” She waved a hand over the cauldron, and the liquid within began to stir. “A pinch of salt times four to close and bolt the door. Weeds to bind, berries to blind. My children he will not see, and they will live safe and free. Pretty petals tinged with hate, scented sweet and so to bait. Boil it all in fire and smoke, and on this potion Cabhan chokes. When I call he comes to me, as I will, so mote it be.”

  The light flashed so all in the circle burned with it.

  She called on Hecate, on Brighid, on Morrigan and Babd Catha, summoning the strength and power of the goddesses. The air quaked, seemed to split and crack. It rang with voices as Sorcha stood, arms high in both prayer and demand.

  The smoke turned red as blood, fogged the room. Then, as if in a whirlpool, sucked back into the cauldron.

  Eyes bright, Sorcha poured the potion into a vessel, sealed it, slid it into her pocket.

  “Mother,” Brannaugh breathed.

  “I am, and will be. Don’t fear me, or what I give you now. My baby.” She took Teagan’s hands. “It will grow in you, as you grow. You will ever be kind, ever ask why. You will ever stand for those who cannot stand. Take this.”

  “It’s hot,” Teagan said as her hands glowed in her mother’s.

  “It will cool again, until you need it. My son. You will fly, and you will fight. You will ever be loyal and true. Take this.”

  “I would take you. I would guard you.”

  “Guard your sisters. Brannaugh, my first. So much to ask of you. Your gift is strong already, and now I give you more. More than Teagan and Eamon, as I must. You will build and you will make. When you love, you will never stop. You will ever be the one they look to first, and will ever bear the burden. Forgive me, and take this.”

  Brannaugh gasped. “It burns!”

  “Only for a moment.” And in that moment Sorcha grieved a thousand years. “Open. Take. Live.”

  She kept only enough, just enough, then let herself slide to the floor when it was done. She was the Dark Witch no more.

  “You are the Dark Witch, one by three. This is my gift, and my curse. Each of you is strong, and stronger together. One day you’ll return. Go now, and quickly. Day comes. Know my heart goes with you.”

  But Teagan clung to her, kicked, cried when Eamon pulled her away.

  “Take her outside, onto Alastar,” Brannaugh said quietly.

  But first Eamon knelt to his mother. “I will avenge my father, and you, my mother. I will protect my sisters with my life. I swear this.”

  “I am proud of my son. I will see you again. My baby,” she said to Teagan. “You will return. I promise you.”

  Brannaugh turned to her sister, passed a hand over her head. And Teagan nodded to sleep.

  “Take her, Eamon, and the packs you can carry. I’ll bring the rest.”

  “I’ll help you. I’m strong enough,” Sorcha insisted. And she didn’t intend to allow Cabhan into her house.

  As they loaded the horse, Brannaugh looked into her mother’s eyes. “I understand.”

  “I know.”

  “I’ll let no harm come to them. If you cannot destroy Cabhan, your blood will. If it takes a thousand years, your blood will.”

  “Night’s fleeting, go quickly. Alastar will carry the three of you far enough into day.” Sorcha’s lips trembled before she found the will to firm them. “She is tender of heart, our baby.”

  “I will always care for her. I promise you.”

  “Then that’s enough. Go, go, or all is for naught.”

  Brannaugh pulled herself up behind her brother and her spell-struck sister. “If I am your strength, Mother, you are mine. All that come from us will know of Sorcha. All will honor the Dark Witch.”

  Through the blur of tears, she looked ahead, and kicked the horse into a gallop.

  Sorcha watched them, kept them in her mind’s eye as they rode through the dark of the woods, away from her. Toward life.

  And as day broke, she took the potion from her pocket, drank. Waited for the dark one to come.

  He brought the fog, but came as a man, drawn to her scent, to the shimmer of her skin. To her power, false now, but potent.

  “My man is dead,” she said flatly.

  “Your man stands before you.”

  “But you are not a man like other men.”

  “More than others. You called me, Sorcha the Dark.”

  “I am not a woman like other women, but more. Needs must be met. Power calls to power. Will you make me a goddess, Cabhan?”

  Greed and lust darkened his eyes and, Sorcha thought, blinded him.

  “I will show you more than you can imagine. Together we will have all, be all. You have only to join with me.”

  “What of my children?”

  “What of them?” His gaze shifted to the house. “Where are they?” he demanded, and would have pushed by her.

  “They sleep. I am their mother, and I would have your word on their safety. You cannot enter until it’s given. I cannot join with you until you swear your oath.”

  “They will come to no harm from me.” He smiled again. “So I swear to you.”

  Liar, she thought. I can still see your mind, and the dark pit of your heart.

  “Then come and kiss me. Make me yours as I make you mine.”

  He pulled her hard against him, twisted her hair cruelly in his hand to drag her head back. And crushed his
lips to hers.

  She opened those lips, and with death in her heart allowed his tongue to sweep into her mouth. Allowed the poison to do its work.

  He stumbled back, clutching at his throat. “What have you done?”

  “I have beaten you. I have destroyed you. And with my last breaths, I curse you. On this day and in this hour, I call upon what holds of my power. You will burn and die in pain, and know the Dark Witch has you slain. So my blood curses your blood for all eternity. As I will, so mote it be.”

  He threw his power at her, even as his skin began to smoke, to blacken. She fell, in blood, in agony, but clung to life. Clung only to watch his death.

  “All that come from you be damned,” she managed as flames burst from him, as his screams tore the world.

  “My death for his,” she whispered when the black ashes of the sorcerer smoldered on the ground. “It is right. It is just. It is done.”

  She let go, released her spirit and left her body by the cabin in the deep green woods.

  And as the fog swirled, something shifted in the black ashes.

  3

  County Mayo, 2013

  THE COLD CARVED BONE DEEP, FUELED BY THE LASH OF THE WIND, iced by the drowning rain gushing from a bruised, bloated sky.

  Such was Iona Sheehan’s welcome to Ireland.

  She loved it.

  How could she not? she asked herself as she hugged her arms to her chest and drank in the wild, soggy view from her window. She was standing in a castle. She’d sleep in a castle that night. An honest-to-God Irish castle in the heart of the west.

  Some of her ancestors had worked there, probably slept there. Everything she knew verified that her people, on her mother’s side in any case, had sprung from this gorgeous part of the world, this magical part of this magical country.

  She’d gambled, well, pretty much everything to come here, to find her roots, to—she hoped—connect with them. And most of all, to finally understand them.

  Burnt bridges, left them smoldering behind her in the hopes of building new ones, stronger ones. Ones that led somewhere she wanted to go.

  She’d left her mother mildly annoyed. But then her mother never rose to serious anger, or sorrow, or joy or passion. How difficult had it been to find herself saddled with a daughter who rode emotions like a wild stallion? Her father had just patted her head in his absent way, and wished her luck as casually as he might some passing acquaintance.

  She suspected she’d never been any more than that to him. Her paternal grandparents considered the trip a grand adventure, and had given her the very welcome gift of a check.

  She was grateful, even knowing they belonged to the out-of-sight-out-of-mind school and probably wouldn’t give her another thought.

  But her maternal grandmother, her treasured Nan, had given her a gift with so many questions.

  She was here in this lovely corner of Mayo, ringed by water, shadowed by ancient trees, to find the answers.

  She should wait until tomorrow, settle in, take a nap, as she’d barely slept on the flight from Baltimore. At least she should unpack. She had a week in Ashford Castle, a foolish expense on the practical scale. But she wanted, so wanted that connection, that once-in-a-lifetime treat.

  She opened her bags, began to take out clothes.

  She was a woman who’d once wished she’d grow taller than her scant five three, and curvier than the slim, teenage boy body the fates had granted her. Then she’d stopped wishing and compensated by using bright colors in her wardrobe, and wearing high, high heels whenever she could manage it.

  Illusion, Nan would say, was as good as reality.

  She’d once wished she could be beautiful, like her mother, but worked with what she had—cute. The only time she’d seen her mother close to genuinely horrified had been just the week before when Iona had chopped off her long blond hair to a pixie cap.

  Far from used to it herself, she raked her fingers through it. It suited her, didn’t it? Didn’t it bring out her cheekbones a little?

  It didn’t matter if she regretted the impulse; she’d regretted others. Trying new things, taking new risks—those were her current goals. No more wait-and-see, the mantra of her parents as long as she could remember. Now was now.

  And with that in mind, she thought, the hell with unpacking, the hell with waiting until tomorrow. What if she died in her sleep?

  She dug out boots, a scarf, the new raincoat—candy pink—she’d bought for Ireland. She dragged a pink-and-white-striped cap over her hair, slung her oversized purse on cross-body.

  Don’t think, just do, she told herself, and left her warm, pretty room.

  She made a wrong turn almost immediately, but it only gave her time to wander the corridors. She’d asked for a room in the oldest section when she’d booked, and liked to imagine servants scurrying with fresh rushes, or ladies sitting at their spindles. Or warriors in bloody mail returning from battle.

  She had days to explore the castle, the grounds, the nearby village of Cong, and she meant to make use of all of it.

  But her primary goal remained to seek out and make contact with the Dark Witch.

  When she stepped outside into the whistling wind and drenching rain, she told herself it was a perfect day for witches.

  The little map Nan had drawn was in her bag, but she’d etched it on her memory. She turned away from the great stone walls, took the path toward the deep woods. Passed winter-quiet gardens, spreads of soaked green. Belatedly she remembered the umbrella in her bag, dragged it out, pushing her way forward into the evocative gloom of the rain-struck woods.

  She hadn’t imagined the trees so big, with their wide, wide trunks, crazily gnarled branches. A storybook wood, she thought, thrilled with it even as the rain splashed over her boots.

  Through its drumming she heard the wind sigh and moan, then the rumble of what must be the river.

  Paths speared, forked, but she kept the map in her head.

  She thought she heard something cry overhead, and for a moment imagined she saw the sweep of wings. Then despite the drumming, the rumbling, the sighs and the moans, everything suddenly seemed still. As the path narrowed, roughened, her heartbeat pounded in her ears, too quick, too loud.

  To the right an upended tree exposed a base taller than a man, wider than her arm span. Vines thick as her wrist tangled together like a wall. She found herself drawn toward them, struck by the urge to pull at them, to fight her way through them to see what lay beyond. The concept of getting lost flitted through her mind, then out again.

  She just wanted to see.

  She took a step forward, then another. She smelled smoke and horses, and both pulled her closer to that tangled wall. Even as she reached out, something burst through. The massive black blur had her stumbling back. She thought, instinctively: Bear!

  Since the umbrella had flown out of her hand, she looked around frantically for a weapon—a stick, a rock—then saw as it eyed her, the biggest dog ever to stand on four massive paws.

  Not a bear, she thought, but as potentially deadly if he wasn’t somebody’s cheerful pet.

  “Hello . . . doggie.”

  He continued to watch her out of eyes more gold than brown. He stepped forward to sniff her, which she hoped wasn’t the prelude to taking a good, hard bite. Then let out two cannon-shot barks before loping away.

  “Okay.” She bent over from the waist until she caught her breath. “All right.”

  Exploring would definitely wait for a bright, sunny day. Or at least a brighter, dryer one. She picked up her soaked and muddy umbrella and pressed on.

  She should’ve waited on the whole thing, she told herself. Now she was wet and flustered and, she realized, more travel weary than she’d expected. She should be napping in her warm hotel bed, snuggled in listening to the rain instead of trudging through it.

  And now—perfect—fog rolled in, surfing over the ground like waves on the shore. Mists thickened like those vines, and the rain sounded like voices m
uttering.

  Or there were voices muttering, she thought. In a language she shouldn’t understand, but almost did. She quickened her pace, as anxious to get out of the woods as she’d been to get into them.

  The cold turned brutal until she saw her breath hazing out. Now the voices sounded in her head: Turn back. Turn back.

  It was stubbornness as much as anxiety that had her pushing ahead until she nearly ran along the slippery path.

  And like the dog, burst into the clear.

  The rain was just the rain, the wind just the wind. The path opened into a road, with a few houses, smoke puffing out of chimneys. And beyond, the beauty of the mist-shrouded hills.

  “Too much imagination, not enough sleep,” she told herself.

  She saw dooryard gardens resting their bright blooms for spring, cars parked on the roadside or in short drives.

  Not far now, according to Nan’s map, so she walked along the road, counting houses.

  It sat farther off the road than the others, farther apart as if it needed breathing room. The pretty thatched-roofed cottage with its deep blue walls and bright red door transmitted that same storybook vibe—yet a shiny silver Mini sat in the little driveway. The cottage itself jogged into an L, fronted by curved glass. Even in the winter, pots of bright pansies sat on the stoops, their exotic faces turned upward to drink in the rain.

  A sign of aged wood hung above the curve of glass. Its deeply carved letters read:

  THE DARK WITCH

  “I found her.” For a moment Iona just stood in the rain, closed her eyes. Every decision she’d made in the last six weeks—perhaps every one she’d made in her life—had led to this.

  She wasn’t sure whether to go to the L—the workshop, Nan had told her—or the cottage entrance. But as she walked closer she saw the gleam of light on the glass. And closer still, the shelves holding bottles full of color—bright or soft—hanks of hanging herbs. Mortars and pestles, bowls and . . . cauldrons?

  Steam puffed from one on a stove top, and a woman stood at a work counter, grinding something.

  Iona’s first thought was how unfair it seemed that some women could look like that even without fussing. The dark hair bundled up, sexily messy, the rosy flush from the work and the steam. The fine bones that said beauty from birth to death, and the deeply sculpted mouth just slightly curved in a contented smile.

  Was it genes or magick? she wondered. But then, for some, one was the same as the other.

  She gathered her courage and, setting her umbrella aside, reached for the door handle.

  She barely touched it when the woman looked up, over. The smile deepened, polite welcome, so Iona opened the door, stepped in.

  And the smile faded. Eyes of smoke gray held so intensely on her face that Iona stopped where she was, just over the threshold.

  “Can I come in?”

  “It’s in you are.”

  “I . . . I guess I am. I should’ve knocked. I’m sorry, I . . . God, it smells amazing in here. Rosemary and basil and lavender, and . . . everything. I’m sorry,” she said again. “Are you Branna O’Dwyer?”

  “I am, yes.” As she answered, she took a towel from under the counter, crossed to Iona. “You’re soaked through.”

 
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