Dark Witch (The Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy #1)

Dark Witch (The Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy #1)

Nora Roberts

To the power of family, those born, those made

   When shall we three meet again?

   In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

   When the hurlyburly’s done,

   When the battle’s lost and won.



Winter 1263

NEAR THE SHADOW OF THE CASTLE, DEEP IN THE GREEN woods, Sorcha led her children through the gloom toward home. The two youngest rode the sturdy pony, with Teagan, barely three, nodding with every plod. Weary, Sorcha thought, after the excitement of Imbolg, the bonfires, and the feasting.

“Mind your sister, Eamon.”

At five, Eamon’s minding was a quick poke to wake up his baby sister before he went back to nibbling on the bannocks his mother had baked that morning.

“Home in your bed soon,” Sorcha crooned when Teagan whined. “Home soon.”

She’d tarried too long in the clearing, she thought now. And though Imbolg celebrated the first stirrings in the womb of the Earth Mother, night fell too fast and hard in winter.

A bitter one it had been, crackling with icy winds and blowing snow and ice-tipped rain. The fog had lived all winter, creeping, crawling, curtaining sun and moon. Too often in that wind, in that fog, she’d heard her name called—a beckoning she refused to answer. Too often in that world of white and gray, she’d seen the dark.

She refused to truck with it.

Her man had begged her to take the children and stay with his fine while he waged his battles over that endless winter.

As the wife of the cennfine, every door would open for her. And in her own right, for what and who she was, welcome would always be made.

But she needed her woods, her cabin, her place. She needed to be apart as much as she needed to breathe.

She would tend her own, always, her home and her hearth, her craft and her duties. And most of all, the precious children she and Daithi had made. She had no fear of the night.

She was known as the Dark Witch, and her power was great.

But just then she felt sorely a woman missing her man, yearning for the warmth of him, the fine, hard body pressed to hers in the cold and lonely dark.

What did she care for war? For the greed and ambitions of all the petty kings? She only wanted her man home safe and whole.

When he came home, they would make another baby, and she would feel that life inside her again. She mourned still the life she’d lost on a brutal black night when the first winter wind had blown through her woods like the sound of weeping.

How many had she healed? How many had she saved? And yet when the blood had poured from her, when that fragile life had flooded away, no magick, no offering, no bargain with the gods had saved it.

But then she knew, too well, healing others came more easily than healing self. And the gods as fickle as a giddy girl in May.

“Look! Look!” Brannaugh, her eldest at seven, danced off the hard path, with their big hound on her heels. “The blackthorn’s blooming! It’s a sign.”

She saw it now, the hint of those creamy white blossoms among the black, tangled branches. Her first bitter thought was while Brighid, the fertility-bringing goddess, blessed the earth, her own womb lay empty inside her.

Then she watched her girl, her first pride, sharp-eyed, pink-cheeked, spinning through the snow. She’d been blessed, Sorcha reminded herself. Three times blessed.

“It’s a sign, Ma.” Dark hair flying with every spin, Brannaugh lifted her face to the dimming light. “Of coming spring.”

“Aye, it’s that. A good sign.” As had been the gloomy day, as the old hag Cailleach couldn’t find firewood without the bright sun. So spring would come early, so the legend went.

The blackthorn bloomed bright, tempting the flowers to follow.

She saw the hope in her child’s eyes, as she’d seen it at the bonfire in other eyes, heard it in the voices. And Sorcha searched inside herself for that spark of hope.

But found only dread.

He would come again tonight—she could already sense him. Lurking, waiting, plotting. Inside, she thought, inside the cabin behind the bolted door, with her charms laid out to protect her babies. To protect herself.

She clucked to the pony to quicken his pace, whistled for the dog. “Come along now, Brannaugh, your sister’s all but asleep already.”

“Da comes home in the spring.”

Though her heart stayed heavy, Sorcha smiled and took Brannaugh’s hand. “He does that, home by Bealtaine, and we’ll have a great feast.”

“Can I see him tonight, with you? In the fire?”

“There’s much to do. The animals need tending before bed.”

“For a moment?” Brannaugh tipped her face back, her eyes, gray as smoke, pleading. “Just to see him for a moment, then I can dream he’s home again.”

As she would herself, Sorcha thought, and now her smile came from her heart. “For a moment, m’inion, when the work’s done.”

“And you take your medicine.”

Sorcha lifted her brows. “Will I then? Do I look to you as if I’m in need of it?”

“You’re still pale, Ma.” Brannaugh kept her voice beneath the wind.

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