Dark witch, p.9
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       Dark Witch, p.9
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         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts

  the moods, because, really.” She grinned, rolled her eyes, fanned her hand. Then her eyes widened. “Oh God, you aren’t— You and Boyle aren’t a thing?”

  “Romantically? No.” With an easy laugh Branna began to brew the tea. “He and Connor have been mates since boyhood, and for that matter, we’ve been friends longer than I can remember. He’s a fine man with a hot temper, but like Meara, one you can count on, thick and thin.”

  “Good to know, and I guess he had reason for the mood today. Alastar was giving him a bad time, and he’d bitten one of the stable hands. Kicked one, too, I think, and—”

  “Wait.” Branna gripped Iona’s arm to stop the flood of words. “You said Alastar? The horse is Alastar?”

  “Yes. What is it? What’s wrong?”

  “And Fin, he bought the horse, had it sent?”

  “Yes. Meara said Fin was still traveling, but sent the horse ahead a couple days ago.”

  “So.” She took a long breath, laid her hands on the counter for a moment. “He knows.”

  “Who, and what? You’re freaking me out, Branna.”

  “Fin. He knows you’re here. Or he knows the three are here, together. That it’s to begin. Alastar, it’s said, was the name of Teagan’s horse. He was her first guide.”

  “Alastar. I didn’t know, but . . . it was like we recognized each other. There was something there, but I thought, I guess I thought it was just he needed me, needed someone who understood him. Alastar. Teagan’s horse. You don’t think it’s coincidence.”

  “That you would come, and so would this horse? And Boyle all but bringing him to you this morning? I bloody well don’t, and add in Finbar Burke and there’s no mistaking it.”

  “How would he know about me, or the name of Teagan’s horse?”

  Branna set teacups down with a clatter. “He has power.”

  “He’s like us? Fin?”

  “He’s like no one but himself, but he comes from the blood, as we do. He springs from Cabhan, the black sorcerer.”

  “Wait a minute. Wait.” She tried to take it in, even pressed her hands to the sides of her head as if to hold it all in. “The evil guy, the one that Sorcha killed—or mostly killed? This Fin is descended from him?”

  “He is.” Eyes flashing, face grim, Branna shoved impatiently at a loosened pin in her hair. “He bears the mark, and it was Teagan who marked Cabhan. He has power, and the blood.”

  “He’s evil?”

  In an impatient gesture, Branna waved a hand in the air, then poured the tea. “Sure there’s no simple answer to a question like that. He’s harmed no one, and I would know. But he’s of Cabhan, and the time’s coming ’round. He sent the horse so we’d know.”

  “But isn’t having Alastar an advantage, for me? For us? For our side of this?”

  “We’ll see what we see.”

  “I don’t understand.” Because they were there, Iona took a cookie, gestured with it. “He’s Boyle’s partner, and his friend, I got that. I don’t see how he could be dangerous if—”

  “An easier question to answer. Dangerous Fin is, and always has been.”

  “But if Boyle’s such a stand-up guy, how can they be friends?”

  “Life’s a puzzle.”

  “One thing, it explains how Boyle knew I was . . . you know.”

  On a sigh, Branna lifted her teacup. “Witch isn’t a bad word, Iona. It’s who and what you are.”

  “It hasn’t exactly been cocktail-party conversation in my life. I’m getting used to it, a little. I should’ve told you before, right away. He knew. I didn’t tell him—why would I?—but he knew. He didn’t seem very weirded out by it, but since he’s friends with a sorcerer—”

  “Fin’s a witch, just as we are.”

  “Right. It just sounds a little girly.”

  “You’ve much to learn, cousin.” She handed Iona her tea.

  “I should tell you something else first. I don’t break my word. It’s important. But today, walking back from the stables, I started to go through those vines. I didn’t mean to, but I thought I saw a light, and I heard my name, over and over. It was almost like the dream I had. I felt out of myself, pulled in. Like I needed to go through, to whatever waited. Kathel stopped me—again. I don’t break promises, Branna. I don’t lie.”

  “Ever?” Branna sipped her own tea.

  “Ever. I’m crap at it anyway, so why bother? But I’d have gone back there if Kathel hadn’t come. I couldn’t have stopped myself.”

  “He’s testing you.”

  “Who?”

  “Cabhan, or what remains of him. You’ll have to be stronger, and smarter. Once you’re both, Connor and I will take you back, as we promised. Well then, let’s see what we have to work with.”

  Too delighted to drink, Iona set the tea aside. “Are you going to teach me a spell?”

  On another laugh, Branna shook her head. “Did you gallop the first time you sat a horse?”

  “I wanted to.”

  “Today you walk, and on a lead. Tell me what your granny said was the most important thing about your power, about the craft?”

  “To harm no one.”

  “Good. An it harm none. What you have is as much a part of you as the color of your eyes, the shape of your mouth. What you do with it is a choice. Choose well.”

  “I made the choice to come here, to you.”

  “And I’m hoping you won’t regret it. Now then, the elements are four.” She gestured to the worktable. “Earth, air, water, fire. We call on them, use them, with respect. It’s not our power over them, but the merging of our power with theirs. Fire, almost always the first learned.”

  “And the last lost,” Iona put in. “Nan said.”

  “True enough. Light the candle.”

  Pleased to have something to show, Iona stepped forward. She schooled her breathing, focused her mind, imagined drawing up the power in her, then releasing it on a long, quiet breath.

  The candlewick sparked, then burned.

  “Very good. Water. We need it to live. It runs through our physical bodies, it dominates the world we live in.”

  She gestured to the white bowl, filled with water. “Clear and calm now. Still. But it moves, like the sea, rises like a geyser, spills like a fountain. Its power, and mine.”

  Iona watched the water stir, form little waves inside the bowl that lapped at the side. She let out a muffled gasp when it shot up to the ceiling, rippled, a liquid spear, then opened almost like a flower, and spilled back into the bowl without a drop lost.

  “That was beautiful.”

  “A pretty bit of magick, but an important skill. Stir the water, Iona. Feel it, see it, ask it.”

  Like the candle flame, she thought. It would be focus, and that drawing up. She steadied her breath again, tried to do the same with her mind, her pulse. She stared at the water, tried to form an image of those little waves rocking its quiet surface.

  And didn’t manage a ripple.

  “I’m doing something wrong.”

  “No. You lack patience.”

  “It’s a problem. Okay, again.”

  She stared at the water, pushed herself at it until her eyes ached.

  “It takes longer for some. Where is your center of power. Where do you feel it rise?” Branna asked.

  “Here.” Iona pressed a hand on her belly.

  “For Connor it’s here.” Branna tapped her heart. “Pull it up, send it out. Use your hand for a guide. Up, out. Imagine, focus, ask.”

  “Okay. Okay.” She loosened her shoulders, shoved at her hair, took a new stance. She wanted to move the damn water, she thought. She wanted to learn how to send it up like a spear. Maybe she’d been too timid. So . . .

  She drew in a breath, pulled, drawing her hand up from her belly, flinging it out toward the bowl.

  And barely choked back the scream when the water flew up toward the ceiling.

  “Holy shit! I just—oops!”

  It fell again, like a small flood
. Stopped, went still just above the counter.

  “I’d prefer to avoid the mess,” Branna said, and with a flick of her finger, had the water spilling back into the bowl.

  “Oh, you did it. I thought I had.”

  “You sent it up, lost your focus. I spared you the mopping.”

  “I did that?” Thrilled, she did a quick dance in place. “Go me. Wow, it’s just so cool. Not respectful,” she said with a wince.

  “No reason there can’t be joy and wonder. It’s magick after all. Do it again. But slow. Smooth. Control, always.”

  “Like riding a horse,” Iona murmured.

  She took it up, only inches this time, and imagining a small fountain, created it. Slowly, slowly, she turned the fountain so it circled just above the bowl. The dance of the water filled her with that joy and with that wonder.

  “You have a lot sleeping inside you,” Branna told her.

  Delighted, proud, dazzled at herself, Iona let the water slide back into the bowl. “Let’s wake it up.”

  * * *

  WHEN CONNOR WALKED IN, SHE FLOATED A FEATHER. Not in the graceful dance Branna demonstrated, but it floated.

  He sent her a wink, then, twirling a finger, had the feather spinning up to tickle her under the chin.

  “Show-off,” she said, but laughed, and did a twirl of her own. “I’m in witch kindergarten. I’ve made flame, moved water, floated the feather, and I did that.”

  She gestured toward the white flowerpot, and the pretty painted daisy blooming in it.

  “That’s well done.” Impressed, he walked to the worktable.

  “I did that,” she corrected, showing him the little seedling beside the bloom. “Branna did the flower.”

  “Still well done. It’s quite the day you’ve had, cousin.” He draped an arm around her shoulders for a quick hug. “And I’m here to collect on my pint. School’s out, don’t you think, Branna? It’s half-six, and I’m next to starving.”

  “The magick’s in his heart, but our Connor thinks with his belly. Or what’s just below it.”

  “And shamed I am of neither. Let’s go to the pub. Iona buys my pint, I buy the meal. That’s a good deal on any table.”

  “Why not?” Branna decided. “We’ve things to talk about, and I could do with a pint and some food while we’re doing it.”

  She pulled the clips from her hair, shook it, and had Iona sighing with envy. “Come on, Kathel. I’ll be five minutes,” she said.

  “She’ll be twenty,” Connor corrected. “We’ll meet you there,” he called out, and reached for Iona’s hand.

  “I don’t mind waiting.”

  “She’s going to decide to change her clothes, then having done that, to fuss with her face. I could have my pint by the time she’s finished, and you can be telling me about your day.”

  “Possibly the best day ever. It’ll take a while.”

  “I’ve nothing but time—as long as we’re heading for that pint and my supper.”

  * * *

  MAYBE IT WAS THE RESIDUAL ENERGY FROM THE POWER SHE’D practiced, combined with the excitement of a new job, but Iona felt she could have sprinted all the way to the village.

  Connor had other ideas and set a meandering pace on the winding road. She knew she chattered, but he’d asked, after all. And he listened, laughed, tossed in comments.

  When she told him of Alastar, Connor lifted his eyebrows, angled his head. His eyes, so full of fun, seemed to sharpen with a quick, canny focus.

  “Well now, that’s an interesting sort of development, isn’t it then?”

  “It upset Branna.”

  “Well, Fin tends to most days of the week, and him sending back this particular horse? That’s a message from him, to her particularly.”

  “A warning?”

  He gave Iona a quiet smile. “She might take it as one.”

  “It doesn’t upset you.”

  “It’s coming, isn’t it—whatever it will be. We knew that when you showed up on the doorstep.”

  He looked away, toward the woods, and his eyes, she thought, looked beyond anything she could see.

  “This is just the next of it,” he told her, “and I’d say having a good horse is a positive thing.”

  “But he’s Fin’s, and if Fin’s part of the—I don’t know—opposing force—”

  “He’s not.”

  “But . . . Branna said—”

  “Blood ties, curses, and devil’s marks.” Connor shrugged them off like an old jacket.

  “Is he Cabhan’s descendant?”

  “That he is. I’d like to know who doesn’t have a twisted branch on his family tree. Coming from something doesn’t make it what you are. You’ve choices, don’t you? You’ve made your own. Fin makes his own, that’s God’s truth, as does our Branna. She’s my sister, and as important to me as my next breath. And Fin’s my friend, as he’s been all of my life. So I walk that line, and it’s fortunate I’ve good balance.”

  “You don’t think he’s evil.”

  Connor paused long enough to draw her to his side, brush his lips on the top of her head with an easy affection that warmed her to the bone. “I think evil comes in too many forms to count. Fin’s not one of them. As for Alastar being his? Buying something doesn’t make it yours as you can keep it, lose it, give it away. It’s you who connected with the horse, isn’t it?”

  “I guess that’s true. You trust him, I can see that. But Branna doesn’t.”

  “She’s conflicted, you could say, which she is on little else. He’ll be back when he’s a mind to, then you can decide for yourself where you stand on it.”

  “You were boys together? You and Fin and Boyle.”

  “Still are.”

  She laughed, but felt a little pang with it. “I don’t have any lifelong friends. We moved when I was about six, then my parents split up when I was ten, so another move, and a lot of back and forth, and other moves when each of them remarried. It’s nice, I think, to have friends you grew up with.”

  “Friends are friends whenever you make them.”

  “You’re right. I like that.”

  He took her hand again, gestured with the other as they came into the village. “There you have the ruins of Cong Abbey. It’s a fine ruin for all that, and the tourists come to wander around it, though most come to Cong for the Quiet Man.”

  “Nan loves that movie. I watched it again myself before I came.”

  “We’ve a festival in September to commemorate the film. It’s grand. Maureen O’Hara herself came two years back. She’s still a rare beauty. Regal and real all at once.”

  “Did you get to meet her?”

  “For a moment I did. Sure it was a fine moment. You didn’t get your village tour today?”

  “No, but there’s plenty of time. I feel like I’ve been here. From everything Nan’s told me,” she explained. “And her photos, the guidebook. It’s just like I imagined.”

  The pretty shops and pubs and restaurants, the little hotel, the flowers in pots and window boxes tipped down the road in the shadow of the ruined abbey. Though the shops were closed, the pubs were open, and a scatter of people strolled along the narrow sidewalks.

  “Where’s Branna’s shop?”

  “Around the corner, there, down a bit next to the tea shop. She’ll be closed now, but I’ve a key if you want to see it.”

  “That’s all right. I’ll have a day off, I assume.”

  “Sure you’ll have your day off. Boyle, he’ll work you hard enough, but not to the bone.”

  They walked down, against the rise of the road, and she lifted her face, happy to feel the cool air on her skin. “Is that . . . Is it peat I smell?”

  “Sure it is. Nothing like a peat fire on an evening, and a pint to go with it. And here, we’ll have both.”

  He opened a door, nudged her in.

  The yeasty smell of beer pouring from the tap, the earthy scent of peat simmering in the hearth—yes, Iona thought, there was nothing like it. Peop
le claimed stools at the hub of the bar, or sat at tables already into their meal. Their voices hummed over the clink of glassware.

  A half dozen patrons hailed Connor the minute he stepped in the door. He called out greetings, sent out a wave, and steered Iona to the bar.

  “Good evening to you, Sean. This is my cousin Iona Sheehan, from America. She’s granddaughter to Mary Kate O’Connor.”

  “Welcome.” He had a shock of white hair shaggy around a ruddy face, and sent her a quick beam out of cheerful blue eyes. “And how’s Mary Kate faring?”

  “She’s very well, thanks.”

  “Iona’s working for Boyle at the stables. Had her first day.”

  “Is that a fact? A horsewoman are you then?”

  “I am.”

  “She’s buying me a pint to celebrate. I’ll have a Guinness. What’s your pleasure, Iona?”

  “Make it two.”

  “Branna’s on her way, so it’s to be three. We’ll just find us a table. Well, it’s Franny.” Connor gave a pretty blonde a peck on the cheek. “Meet my cousin Iona from America.”

  So it began. Iona calculated she met more people in ten minutes within feet of the bar than she normally did in a month. By the time they moved away she carried a blur of faces and names in her head.

  “Do you know everybody?”

  “Hereabouts, most. And there’s two you know yourself.”

  She spotted Boyle and Meara at a table crowded with pints and plates. Connor snagged one beside them. “How’s it all going then?”

  “Well enough. Taking in the local nightlife are you, Iona?” Meara asked her.

  “Celebrating my new job. Thanks again,” she said to Boyle.

  “It happens we’re working out schedules,” Meara told her, “and you’ve Thursday off if you’ve a mind to make plans.”

  “I’m nothing but plans right now.”

  “Iona tells me Fin sent you a new horse. Alastar, is it—and temperamental.”

 
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