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The first day of September
Through the house, still as a grave, Larkin limped.
The air was sweet, fragrant with the flowers gathered lavishly for the handfasting rite of the night before. The blood had been mopped up; the weapons cleaned.
They'd toasted Hoyt and Glenna with the frothy wine, had eaten cake. But behind the smiles, the horror of the night's battle lurked. A poor guest.
Today, he supposed, was for rest and more preparation. It was a struggle for him not to be impatient with the training, with the planning. At least last night they'd fought, he thought as he pressed a hand to his thigh that ached from an arrow strike. A score of demons had fallen, and there was glory in that.
In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of Coke. He'd developed a taste for it, and had come to prefer it over his morning tea.
He turned the bottle in his hand, marveling at the cleverness of the vessel -- so smooth, so clear and hard. But what was inside it -- this was something he'd miss when they returned to Geall.
He could admit he hadn't believed his cousin, Moira, when she'd spoken of gods and demons, of a war for worlds. He'd only gone with her that day, that sad day of her mother's burial, to look after her. She wasn't only blood, but friend, and would be queen of Geall.
But every word she'd spoken to him, only steps away from her mother's grave, had been pure truth. They'd gone to the Dance, they'd stood in the heart of that circle. And everything had changed.
Not just the where and when they were, he mused as he opened the bottle and took that first bracing sip. But everything. One moment, they'd stood under the afternoon sun in Geall, then there'd been light and wind, and a roar of sound. Then it had been night, and it had been Ireland -- a place Larkin had always believed a fairy tale.
He hadn't believed in fairy tales, or monsters, and despite his own gift had looked askance at magic.
But magic there was, he admitted now. Just as there was an Ireland, and there were monsters. Those demons had attacked them -- springing out of the dark of the woods, their eyes red, their fangs sharp. The form of a man, he thought, but not a man.
They existed to feed off man. And now they banded together under their queen to destroy all.
He was here to stop them, at all and any costs. He was here at the charge of the gods to save the worlds of man. He scratched idly at his healing thigh and decided he could hardly be expected to save mankind on an empty stomach.
He cut a slab of cake to go with his morning Coke and licked icing from his finger. So far, through wile and guile he'd avoided Glenna's cooking lessons. He liked to eat, that was true enough, but the actual making of food was a different matter.
He was a tall, lanky man with a thick waving mane of tawny hair. His eyes, nearly the same color, were long like his cousin's, and nearly as keen. He had a long and mobile mouth that was quick to smile, quick hands and an easy nature.
Those who knew him would have said he was generous with his time and his coin, and a good man to have at your back at the pub, or in a brawl.
He'd been blessed with strong, even features, a strong back, a willing hand. And the power to change his shape into any living thing.
He took a healthy bite of cake where he stood, but there was too much quiet in the house to suit him. He wanted, needed, activity, sound, motion. Since he couldn't sleep, he decided he'd take Cian's stallion out for a morning run.
Cian could hardly do it himself, being a vampire.
He stepped out of the back door of the big stone house. There was a chill in the air, but he had the sweater and jeans Glenna had purchased in the village. He wore his own boots -- and the silver cross Glenna and Hoyt had forged with magic.
He saw where the earth was scorched, where it was trampled. He saw his own hoofprints left in the sodden earth when he'd galloped through the battle in the form of a horse.
And he saw the woman who'd ridden him, slashing destruction with a flaming sword.
She moved through the mists, slow and graceful, in what he would have taken for a dance if he hadn't known the movements, the complete control in them, were another preparation for battle.
Long arms and long legs swept through the air so smoothly they barely disturbed the mists. He could see her muscles tremble when she held a pose, endlessly held it, for her arms were bared in a snug white garment no woman of Geall would have worn outside the bedchamber.
She lifted a leg behind her into the air, bent at the knee, reaching an arm back to grasp her bare foot. The shirt rose up her torso to reveal more flesh. It would be a sorry man, Larkin decided, who didn't enjoy the view.
Her hair was short, raven black, and her eyes were bluer than the lakes of Fonn. She wouldn't have been deemed a beauty in his world, as she lacked the roundness, the plump sweet curves, but he found the strength of her form appealing, the angles of her face, the sharp arch of brows interesting and unique.
She brought her leg down, swept it out to the side, then dropped into a long crouch with her arms parallel to the ground.
"You always eat that much sugar in the morning?"
Her voice jolted him. He'd been still and silent, and thought her unaware of him. He should've known better. He took a bite of the cake he'd forgotten he held. "It's good."
"Bet." Blair lowered her arms, straightened. "Earlier rising for you than usual, isn't it?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"Know what you mean. Damn good fight."
"Good?" He looked over the burned ground and thought of the screams, the blood, the death. "It wasn't a night at the pub."
"Entertaining though." She looked as he did, but with a hard light in her eyes. "We kicked some vampire ass, and what could be a better way to spend the evening?"
"I can think of a few."
"Hell of a rush, though." She rolled any lingering tension from her shoulders as she glanced at the house. "And it didn't suck to go from a handfasting to a fight and back again -- as winners. Especially when you consider the alternative."
"There's that, I suppose."
"I hope Glenna and Hoyt are getting a little honeymoon time in, because for the most part, it was a pretty crappy reception." With the long, almost liquid gait he'd come to admire, she walked over to the table they used during daylight training to hold weapons and supplies. She picked up the bottle of water she'd left there and drank deep.
"You have a mark of royalty."
He moved closer, touched a fingertip lightly to her shoulder blade. There was the mark of a cross like the one around his neck, but in bold and bloody red.
"It's just a tattoo."
"In Geall only the ruler would bear a mark on the body. When the new king or queen becomes, when they lift the sword from the stone, the mark appears. Here." He tapped a hand on his right biceps. "Not the symbol of the cross, but the claddaugh, put there, it's said, by the finger of the gods."
"Cool. Excellent," she explained when he frowned at her.
"I myself have never seen this."
She cocked her head. "And seeing's believing?"
He shrugged. "My aunt, Moira's mother, had such a mark. But she rose to queen before I was born, so I didn't see the mark become."
"I never heard that part of the legend." Because it was there, she swooped a fingertip through the icing of his cake, sucked it off. "I guess everything doesn't trickle down."
"How did you come by yours?"
Funny guy, Blair thought. Curious nature. Gorgeous eyes. Danger, Will Robinson, she thought. That sort of combo just begged for complications. She just wasn't built for complications -- and had learned it the hard way. "I paid for it. A lot of people have tattoos. It's like a personal statement, you could say. Glenna's got one." She took another drink, watching him as she reached around to tap herself on the small of the back. "Here. A pentagram. I saw it when we were helping her get dressed for the handfasting."
"So they're for women."
"Not only. Why, you want one?"
"I think not." He rubbed absently at his thigh.
Blair remembered yanking the arrow out of him herself, and that he'd barely uttered a sound. The guy had balls to go with the gorgeous eyes and curious nature. He was no slouch in a fight, and no whiner after the battle. "Leg giving you trouble?"
"A little stiff, a little sore. Glenna's a good healer.
She bent her leg back, heel to butt, gave it a testing pull. "It's okay. I heal fast -- part of the family package. Not as fast as a vamp," she added. "But demon hunters heal faster than your average human."
She picked up the jacket she'd tossed on the table, put it on against the morning cool. "I want coffee."
"I don't like it. I like the Coke." Then he smiled, easy, charming. "Will you be making yourself the breakfast?"
"In a little while. I've got some things I want to do first."
"Maybe you wouldn't mind making enough for two."
"Maybe." Clever guy, too, she thought. You had to respect his finagling. "You got something going now?"
It took him a moment, but he tried to spend a little time each day with the miraculous machine called the television. He was proud to think he was learning new idioms.
"I'm after taking the horse for a ride, then feeding and grooming him."
"Plenty of light today, but you shouldn't head into the woods unarmed."
"I'll be riding the fields. Ah, Glenna, she asked if I'd not ride alone in the forest. I don't like to worry her. Were you wanting a ride yourself?"
"I think I had enough of one last night, thanks to you."
Amused, she gave him a light punch in the chest. "You've got some speed in you, cowboy."
"Well, you've a light and steady seat." He looked back out at the trampled ground. "You're right. It was a good fight."
"Damn right. But the next one won't be so easy."
His eyebrows winged up. "And that one was easy?"
"Compared to what's coming, bet your ass."
"Well then, the gods help us all. And if you've a mind to cook eggs and bacon with it, that'd be fine. Might as well eat our fill while we still have stomachs."
Cheery thought, Blair decided as she went inside. The hell of it was, he'd meant it that way. She'd never known anyone so offhand about life and death. Not resigned -- she'd been raised to be resigned to it -- just a kind of confidence that he'd live as he chose to live, until he stopped living. She admired the viewpoint.
She'd been raised to know the monster under the bed was real, and was just waiting until you relaxed before it ripped your throat out.
She'd been trained to put that moment off as long as she could stand and fight, to slash and to burn, and take out as many as humanly possible. Because under the strength, the wit and the endless training was the knowledge that some day, some way, she wouldn't be fast enough, smart enough, lucky enough.
And the monster would win.
Still there'd always been a balance to it -- demon and hunter, with each the other's prey. Now the stakes had been raised, sky-fricking-high, she thought as she made coffee. Now it wasn't just the duty and tradition that had been passed down through her blood for damn near a millennium.
Now it was a fight to save humankind.
She was here, with this strange little band -- two of which, vampire and sorcerer, turned out to be her ancestors -- to fight the mother of all battles.
Two months, she thought, until Halloween. Till Samhain, and the final showdown the goddess had prophesied. They'd have to be ready, she decided as she poured the first cup. Because the alternative just wasn't an option.
She carried her coffee upstairs, into her room.
As quarters went, it had it all over her apartment in Chicago where she'd based herself over the last year and a half. The bed boasted a tall headboard with carved dragons on either side. A woman could feel like a spellbound princess in that bed -- if she was of a fanciful state of mind. Despite the fact the place was owned by a vampire, there was a wide mirror, framed in thick mahogany. The wardrobe would have held three times the amount of clothes she'd brought with her, so she used it for secondary weapons, and tucked her traveling wardrobe in the chest of drawers.
The walls were painted a dusky plum, and the art on them woodland scenes of twilight or predawn, so that the room seemed to be in perpetual shadow if the curtains were drawn. But that was all right. She had lived a great deal of her life in the shadows.
But she opened the curtains now so morning spilled in and then sat at the gorgeous little desk to check her e-mail on her laptop.
She couldn't prevent the little flicker of hope, or stop it from dying out as she saw there was still no return message from her father.
Nothing new, she reminded herself and tipped back in the chair. He was traveling, somewhere in South America to the best of her knowledge. And she only knew that much because her brother had told her.
It had been six months since she'd had any contact with him, and there was nothing new about that, either. His duty to her had been, in his opinion, fulfilled years ago. And maybe he was right. He'd taught her, he'd trained her, though she'd never been good enough to merit his approval.
She simply didn't have the right equipment. She wasn't his son. The disappointment he'd felt when it had been his daughter instead of his son who'd inherited the gift was something he'd never bothered to hide.
Softening blows of any sort just wasn't Sean Murphy's style. He'd pretty much dusted her off his hands on her eighteenth birthday.
Now she'd embarrassed herself by sending him a second message when he'd never answered the first. She'd sent that first e-mail before she'd left for Ireland, to tell him something was up, something was twitching, and she wanted his advice.
So much for that, she thought now, and so much for trying again, after her arrival, to tell him what was twitching was major.
He had his own life, his own course, and had never pretended otherwise. It was her own problem, her own lack, that she still coveted his approval. She'd given up on earning his love a long time ago.
She turned off the computer, pulled on a sweatshirt and shoes. She decided to go up to the training room and work off frustration, work up an appetite lifting weights.
The house, she'd been told, had been the one Hoyt and his brother, Cian, had been born in. In the dawn of the twelfth century. It had been modernized, of course, and some additions had been made, but she could see from the original structure the Mac Cionaoiths had been a family of considerable means.
Of course Cian had had nearly a millennium to make his own fortune, to acquire the house again. Though from the bits and pieces she'd picked up, he didn't live in it. She didn't make a habit out of conversing with vampires -- just killing them. But she was making an exception with Cian. For reasons that weren't entirely clear to her, he was fighting with them, even bankrolling their little war party to some extent.
Added to that, she'd seen the way he'd fought the night before, with a ruthless ferocity. His allegiance could be the element that tipped the scales in their favor.
She wound her way up the stone stairs toward what had once been the great hall, then a ballroom in later years. And was now their training room.
She stopped short when she saw Larkin's cousin Moira doing chest extensions with five-pound free weights. The Geallian wore her brown hair back in a thick braid that reached her waist. Sweat dribbled down her temples, and more darkened the back of the white T-shirt she wore. Her eyes, fog gray, were staring straight ahead, focused, Blair assumed, on whatever got her through the reps.
She was, by Blair's gauge, about five-three, maybe a hundred and ten pounds, after you'd dragged her out of a lake. But she was game. Having game held a lot of weight on Blair's scale. What Blair had initially judged as mousiness was, in actuality, a watchfulness. The woman soaked up everything.
"Thought you were still in bed," Blair said as she stepped inside.
Moira lowered the weights, then used her forearm to swipe her brow. "I've been up for a bit. You're wanting to use the room?"
"Yeah. Plenty of room in here for both of us." Blair walked over, selected ten-pound weights. "Not hunkered down with the books this morning."
"I..." On a sigh, Moira stretched out her arms as she'd been taught. She might have wished her arms were as sleek and carved with muscle as Blair's, but no one would call them soft any longer. "I've been starting the day here, before I use the library. Usually before anyone's up and about."
"Okay." Curious, Blair studied Moira as she worked her triceps. "And you're keeping this a secret because?"
"Not a secret. Not exactly a secret." Moira picked up a bottle of water, twisted off the cap. Twisted it back on.
"I'm the weakest of us. I don't need you or Cian to tell me that -- though one or the other of you make a point to let me know it with some regularity."
Something gave a little twist inside Blair's belly. "And that sucks. I'm going to tell you I'm sorry about that, because I know how it feels to get slammed down when you're doing your best."
"My best isn't altogether that good, is it? No, I'm not looking for sorry," she said before Blair could speak. "It's hard to be told you're lacking, but that's what I am -- for now. So I come up here in the mornings, early, and lift these bloody things the way you showed me. I won't be the weak one, the one the rest of you have to worry about."
"You don't have much muscle yet, but you've got some speed. And you're a frigging genius with a bow. If you weren't so good with it, things wouldn't have turned out the way they did last night."
"Work on my weaknesses, and on my strengths, on my own time. That's what you said to me -- and it made me angry. Until I saw the wisdom of it. I'm not angry. You're good at training. King was...He was more easy on me, I think, because he was a man. A big man at that," Moira added with sorrow in her eyes now. "Who had affection for me, I think, because I was the smallest of us."
Blair hadn't met King, Cian's friend who'd been captured, then killed by Lilith. Then turned, and sent back as a vampire.
"I won't be easy on you," Blair promised.
By the time she'd finished a session with the weights and grabbed a quick shower, Blair had worked up that appetite. She decided to go for one of her favorites, and dug up the makings for French toast.
She tossed some Irish bacon into a skillet for protein, selected Green Day on her MP3 player. Music to cook by. She poured her second cup of coffee before breaking eggs in a bowl.
She was beating the batter when Larkin strolled in the door. He stopped, stared at her player. "And what is it?"
"It's a -- " How to explain? "A way to whistle while you work."
"No, it's not the machine I'm meaning. There are so many of those, I can't keep them all in my brain. But what's the sound?"
"Oh. Um, popular music? Rock -- of the hard variety." He was grinning now, head cocked as he listened.
"Rock. I like it."
"Who wouldn't? Not going for eggs, this morning. Doing up French toast."
"Toast?" Disappointment fell over his face, erasing the easy pleasure of the music. "Just cooked bread?"
"Not just. Besides, you get what you get when I'm manning the stove. Or you forage on your own."
"It's kind of you to cook, of course."
His tone was so long-suffering, she had to swallow a laugh. "Relax, and trust me on this. I've seen you chow down, cowboy. You're going to like it as much as Rock, especially after you drown it in butter and syrup. I'll have it going in a minute. Why don't you flip that bacon over?"
"I'm needing to wash first. Been mucking out the stall and such, and I'm not fit yet to touch anything."
She lifted a brow as he strolled right out. She'd seen him slip out of all manner of kitchen duties already. And she had to admit, he was slick about it.
Resigned, she turned the bacon herself, then heated a second skillet. She was about to dunk the first piece of bread when she heard voices. The newlyweds were up, she realized, and added to the batter to accommodate them.
Effortless style. It was something Glenna had in spades, Blair thought. She wandered in wearing a sage green sweater and black jeans with her bold red hair swinging straight and loose. The urban take on country casual, Blair supposed. When you added the pretty flush of a woman who'd obviously had her morning snuggles, you had quite a package.
She didn't look like a woman who would rush a squad of vampires while she bellowed war cries and swung a battle-ax, but she'd done just that.
"Mmm, French toast? You must have read my mind." As she moved to the coffeepot, Glenna gave Blair's arm an absent stroke. "Give you a hand?"
"No, I got this. You've been taking the lion's share of KP, and I'm better at breakfast than dinner. Didn't I hear Hoyt?"
"Right behind me. He's talking to Larkin about the horse. I think Hoyt's a little put out he didn't get to Vlad before Larkin did. Coffee's good. How'd you sleep?"
"Like I'd been knocked unconscious, for a couple hours." Blair dipped bread, then laid it to sizzle. "Then, I don't know, too restless. Wired up." She slanted Glenna a look. "And nowhere to put the excess energy, like the bride."
"I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty loose and relaxed this morning. Except." Wincing a little, Glenna massaged her right biceps. "My arms feel like I spent half the night swinging a sledgehammer."
"Battle-ax has weight. You did good work with it."
"Work isn't the word that comes to mind. But I'm not going to think about it -- at least not until I've gorged myself." Turning, Glenna opened a cupboard for plates. "Do you know how often I had a breakfast like this -- fried bread, fried meat -- before all this started?"
"Never. Absolutely never," she added with a half laugh. "I watched my weight as if the, well, as if the fate of the world depended on it."
"You're training hard." Blair flipped the bread. "You need the fuel, the carbs. If you put on a few pounds, I can guarantee it's going to be pure muscle."
"Blair." Glenna glanced toward the doorway to ensure Hoyt hadn't started in yet. "You've got more experience with this than any of us. Just between you and me, for now, anyway, how did we do last night?"
"We lived," Blair said flatly. She continued to cook, sliding fried bread onto a plate, dunking more. "That's bottom line."
"But -- "
"Glenna, I'll tell you straight." Blair turned, leaning back on the counter for a moment while bread sizzled and scented the air. "I've never been in anything like that before."
"But you've been doing this -- hunting them -- for years."
"That's right. And I've never seen so many of them in one place at one time, never seen them organized that way."
Glenna let out a quiet breath. "That can't be good news."
"Good or bad, it's fact. It's not -- never been in my experience -- the nature of the beast to live, work, fight in large groups. I contacted my aunt, and she says the same. They're killers, and they might travel, hunt, even live together in packs. Small packs, and there might be an alpha, male or female. But not like this."
"Not like an army," Glenna murmured.
"No. And what we saw last night was a squad -- a small slice of an army. The thing is, they're willing to die for her, for Lilith. And that's powerful stuff."
"Okay. Okay," Glenna said as she set the table. "That's what I get for saying I wanted it straight."
"Hey, buck up. We lived, remember? That's a victory."
"Good morning to you," Hoyt said to Blair as he came in. Then his gaze went straight to Glenna.
They shared coloring, Blair thought, she and her however-many-times great-uncle. She, the sorcerer and his twin brother, the vampire, shared coloring, and ancestry, and now this mission, she supposed.
Fate was certainly a twisty bastard.
"You two sure have the glow on," she said when Glenna lifted her face to meet Hoyt's lips. "Practically need my shades."
"They shield the eyes from the sun, and are a sexy fashion statement," Hoyt returned and made her laugh.
"Have a seat." She turned off the music, then brought the heaping platter to the table. "I made enough for an army, seeing as that's what we are."
"It looks a fine feast. Thank you."
"Just doing my share, unlike some of us who're a little more slippery." She met Larkin's perfectly timed appearance with a shake of her head. "Right on time."
His expression was both innocent and affable. "Is it ready then? It took me a bit longer to get back as I stopped to tell Moira there was food being cooked. And a welcome sight it is."
"You look, you eat." Blair slapped four slices of French toast on a plate for him. "And you and your cousin do the dishes."
Material excerpted with permission from Dance of the Gods by Nora Roberts, 2006.
Originally published on LHJ.com, September 2006.