Face the fire, p.21
Face the Fire, page 21part #3 of Three Sisters Island Series
He had something on his mind, Mia was sure of it. He was too damn pleasant, attentive, considerate. If she hadn't known better, she might have wondered if someone had put a good-nature spell on him. As ridiculous as it was, even to herself, she preferred him with his edge on. At least then she knew what to expect.
Still she didn't have the time to dig below the surface, couldn't risk him digging below hers. And had she the time, she couldn't spare the energy. She was stockpiling power like blue-chip stocks. She was resolved, she was prepared, and she was as confident as she could manage. When nerves trickled in, she used them. When doubts crept close, she swept them aside. On the day of the full moon, she rose at dawn. She'd wanted, almost painfully wanted, to roll over into Sam, and his warmth. Just to have his arms come around her as they sometimes did in sleep. They'd done nothing but sleep together, in the most innocent sense, since the night in the cottage. He hadn't questioned her on this, nor had he tried to seduce her. The fact that she found his cooperation mildly insulting only caused her to become annoyed with herself.
It had been she who, more than once, had nearly turned to him in the night, when her mind was soft with dreams and her body aching with needs.
But on this most vital of mornings, she left him sleeping and stood on her cliffs. Here she gathered fire from the rising sun, and strength from the crashing sea.
Arms spread, she drank power, and gave thanks for the gift.
When she turned, she saw him on the bedroom balcony, watching her. Their gazes locked, and held. Light sparked between them. With her hair blowing in the wind, she walked back to the house, and ignored the black-edged fog crawling along the edges of her world.
She went to the bookstore for her own peace of mind. It was something she'd built through sweat and dreams. Despite her broken arm, Lulu was back to manning the counter. Since there'd been no stopping her, Mia hadn't bother to argue.
And she had to admit, the work - and the visits from neighbors and friends - seemed to keep Lulu in good spirits.
Still, Mia had hoped she would ease back to work rather than leaping. Because business was unusually brisk, she didn't have the opportunity she'd wanted to spend time with Lulu - to fuss over her without seeming to fuss. But it seemed that every second person who lived on the island found a reason to stop in and spend time with her.
By noon the cafe was jammed, and she couldn't pass by without someone calling her over for a word. To escape long enough to catch her breath, Mia slipped into the kitchen, snagged a bottle of water from the refrigerator.
"Hester Birmingham just told me Ben and Jerry's ice cream is on special this week. "
"Two of my favorite men," Nell responded as she built a grilled chicken and Brie sandwich to go with the soup special.
"She was pretty damn intense about it. I thought she'd burst into tears any minute. "
"Some of us take our ice cream seriously. Why don't I get some? We can make sundaes tonight . . . after. "
"Fine. I'm glad you're not worried about tonight. " Mia walked over to give Nell's back a quick rub.
"You have everything you need. Tomorrow, it'll be over. No shadows. "
"I believe that. But you have to let me worry about you a little. "
"Little sister. " Mia rested her cheek on Nell's hair, just for a moment. "I love you. Now I'm going to get out of here. I still have things I need to do, and all I'm getting accomplished here today is socializing. I'll see you tonight. "
As she hurried out, Nell closed her eyes. And prayed.
It wasn't, Mia discovered, a simple matter to leave. By the time she managed to get to her office, retrieve the papers she'd locked there, and make her way downstairs, an hour had been eaten up.
"Lulu. Two minutes," she said, gesturing to the back room.
"I'm busy here. "
"Two minutes," Mia repeated and went inside.
"I don't have time to lollygag, and I don't need another break. " With her face scrunched in disapproval, Lulu clomped into the room. Her cast was covered with colorful signatures, and a few lewd illustrations.
"I've got customers. "
"So I see. I'm sorry, I need to go home. "
"It's the middle of the damn day. Might remind you, I'm down to one arm instead of my usual six. "
"I'm sorry. " A well of emotion rose in her throat, thickened her voice before she could swallow it again. This was the woman who'd been mother, father, friend. The only constant in her life other than her own gift. And more precious than magic.
"You sick or something?" Lulu demanded.
"No. No, I'm fine. We can close the store for the rest of the day. I don't want you to overdo. "
"I'll be damned if we're closing. If you want to play hooky, go ahead. I'm not a damned invalid, and I know how to run the shop. "
"I know. I'll make it up to you. "
"Damn right you will. I'll take an afternoon off next week, and you can stay in the trenches. "
"That's a deal. Thanks. " Careful of the broken arm, Mia hugged her, then unable to help herself, pressed her face into Lulu's hair. "Thank you. "
"If I'd known you'd get so worked up about it, I'd have taken two afternoons off. Go on if you're going. "
"I love you, Lu. I'm going. "
She hitched her satchel on her shoulder and, rushing out, didn't see the tears swim into Lulu's eyes or hear her sniff them back.
And when she was sure Mia wouldn't hear, she whispered, "Blessed be, baby girl. "
"Everything in order, Mrs. Farley?"
"It is. "
Sam nodded. "I appreciate your help. I'm going to have to leave matters in your capable hands. "
"Sir . . . Sam," she amended. "You were an interesting boy, and a good one, all in all. You're a better man. "
"I - " Words failed him. "Thank you. I have to get home. "
"Have a good evening. "
"It's going to be one for the books," he predicted as he walked out of his office. There were things he needed at the cottage. Tools of his own that he hadn't taken to Mia's. He packed them - his oldest athame and ritual sword, the old jar where he kept his sea salt. He changed into a dark shirt and jeans, deciding to take the black robe with him rather than driving in it. He wrapped a favored wand in silk.
All of this he placed in a carved wooden box that had been in his family for generations. Rather than an amulet or pendant, he wore the two silver rings on a chain. Before he walked to his car, he stopped to look back at the house, and the woods that ran beside it. His protection would hold. He refused to believe otherwise.
He could feel the simmer of his own power as he crossed the edge of his charm and stepped clear of it into the street.
The force struck him, a full body blow that lifted him off his feet, sent him flying back. His body slammed into the ground, and a thousand black stars spun inside his head.
"It'll take you an hour to set up all this equipment," Ripley complained as Mac loaded the last of it into the back of his Land Rover.
"No, it won't. "
"You always say that. "
"I probably won't need it all, but I'm not taking any chances. This promises to be one of the biggest paranormal events in recorded history. There. " He slammed the cargo door. "Ready?"
"I've been ready. Let's get - "
He watched, stupefied, as her eyes rolled back in her head and her hands clawed at her own throat while she choked for breath.
Nell waited while Zack put the bag holding her tools in the car. "This is going to work," she told him.
"Mia's been working toward this all her life. "
"Doesn't hurt to have backup. "
"No, and Sam's idea wasn't just brilliant, it speaks to the purpose of the island as well. "
He hefted the cooler holding the ice cream and the makings for sundaes. "I believe that. But it gives me some trouble knowing Remington's gone catato
"He's being used. I can feel sorry for him, opening himself to what will, without question, destroy him. "
"What's in him wants you, Nell. "
"No. " She touched Zack's arm. The man who'd once been her husband, and her terror, held no more fear for her. "What's in him now wants everything, and Mia most of all. "
She started to turn to the car door, then with a shocked cry, doubled over.
"What is it? Nell?"
"Cramps. God, the baby!"
"Hold on. Just hold on. " He swept her into his arms, fighting against panic as he saw the pain on her face. "I'll get you to the doctor. It's going to be okay. "
"No, no, no. " Pressing her face into his shoulder, she struggled against both pain and terror. "Wait. Just wait. "
"Not for a second. " He yanked open the door, would have set her inside, but she clung like a burr.
"It's not real. It's not real. Mia said the baby would be safe. She was sure of it. This is not real. " She dug down, found the power beneath the fear. "It's an illusion, to keep us away. To keep us from making the circle. " She let out a long, shaky breath, and when she looked at Zack again, her skin glowed.
"It's a lie," she said. "We have to get to Mia. "
She went to her cliffs first, stood with her robe, white as the moon that had yet to rise, billowing. She could feel the dark pressing, its edge ice-cold, blade-sharp.
She watched, calm, as the fog rolled in over the sea and began, foot by foot, to spread over the island. However fiercely she'd guarded her thoughts, it understood one point. Tonight was the battle for all.
"So mote it be," she murmured, and turning away, walked into the long shadows and dying light of the forest.
The fog closed around her. Cold and full of whispers. It made her want to run. She could feel it, horrid little fingers tickling along her skin. A kind of tease.
She heard the long, low howl of a wolf, and the sound was almost a laugh. Panic leaked through her shield of will as the fog crept hideously beneath the skirt of her robe. On a sound of disgust, she slapped at it, driving it back from the path, though she knew she scattered some of her carefully hoarded energy in doing so.
Her pulse raging, she walked to the clearing. To the heart, to wait for her circle. It would not be so easy, she thought, and pulled her emotions back. She imagined them, bright and dark, coalescing into one narrow beam buried in her heart. Not so easy to harm what she loved, to use that love to destroy.
She would protect. And she would win.
Nell came first, running through the woods with Zack to throw her arms around Mia. "You're all right!"
"Yes. " Gently Mia drew Nell back. "What happened?"
"It tried to stop us. Mia, it's very close. "
"I know. " She took both of Nell's hands. Gripped tight. "You and yours won't be harmed. We need to start. The sun's nearly set. "
She released Nell, opened her arms, and the candles she had set around the clearing burst into light. "It wants the dark," she said, then turned as Ripley stepped into the clearing.
"The son of a bitch thought he could scare me away. " She laid down her bag of tools as Mac hauled in the first load of his equipment. "It's time we showed the bastard who he's dealing with. "
"I could use a hand with some of my stuff," Mac said.
"You don't have much time," Mia told him.
"Time enough. " Sam walked in, hefting one of Mac's monitors and his own carved box. Mia crossed to him, touched a fingertip to the corner of his mouth. "You're bleeding. "
"Sucker punched me. " He wiped at the blood with the back of his hand. "I owe him one. "
"Then let's fight. " Ripley reached into her bag and drew out her ritual sword. For the first time in days, Mia laughed and meant it. "You never change. This place is sacred. It is the heart. Circle within circle within circle protects all from cold and dark. Here where stood the sisters three I will meet my destiny. "
As she spoke, she walked the edges of the clearing, her bare feet inches from the bubbling fog.
"Once this circle has been cast, the bond we form will ever last. "
"That's not the opening for the banishing ritual," Sam said, but she ignored him and continued.
"The setting sun gives me its fire, and the moon will rise higher and higher. " She picked up a jar and spread a ring of sea salt around the husbands of her sisters. "One is three and three is one, through our blood the web was spun. What is dark and wears my mark will bear it for eternity. As I will, so mote it be. "
She lifted her arms and called the thunder. "Cast the next circle," she said, and looked at Sam. "I know what I'm doing. "
"So do I. "
Mac studied his gauges as the circle was cast. "As far as I can follow this, by casting this outer circle, around the clearing, by herself, she's focusing the negative force on her. Even when she's linked with the others, she's the target. "
"Sam called that one," Zack replied.
"That's right. She circled us with the sea salt as a second defense. Her plan is for us to stay inside the protective ring, whatever happens. "
"In a pig's eye," Zack stated.
"You got that right, too. Power's building. " He could feel it.
Around the circle, light shimmered, deep gold. With the tips of blades, each scribed their symbols in the ground. The first chant rose with the moon.
"Air and earth and fire and water, mother to son, and son to daughter. Through our blood we claim the right to call the power from the night. Under the light of the Moon of Mead, we ask to be given what we need. We seek the light, we seek the sight. "
Nell lifted her arms. "From Air I come, of Air I call. I bring the wind to rise and fall. To sweep away what seeks to harm, I bring to bear all magic, all charm. I am Air and she is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
And while the wind rose up to roar, Ripley lifted her arms. "From Earth I come, of Earth I entreat. Quake and quiver below my feet. The dark what's mine will swallow, and none his fall will follow. I am Earth and she is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
The earth trembled.
"From Water I come. " Sam spread his arms high. "Of Water I cry. Pour from the sea, flood from the sky. To wash clean this isle of light and protect it from the hound of night. I am Water, and he is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
As the rain lashed them, Mia threw back her head. "From Fire I come, of Fire I yearn. Spark and flame and cleanly burn. To purge this beast who hunts for blood, and from him shield what I have loved. I am Fire, and she is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
Lightning flamed across the sky, spewed up from the ground. It roared in the air and sparked like diamonds on the rain.
The storm broke like a fury, spinning a whirlwind out from the clearing and through the forest.
"My equipment can't measure it," Mac called out over the explosions of thunder. "I can't get a clear reading. "
Beside him, Zack drew his weapon. "You don't need one. It's howling. The wolf. And it's getting closer. "
Within the circle, the four linked hands. With the moon beaming like a beacon through the storm, Mia drew Nell's hand over to Sam's. And made them three.
"Twice the Three have stopped your breath. I alone am left to test. Tonight I stand and challenge you. Come from the dark and do what you will do. My fate within my own hands rests. Which one of us will meet our death? You have come to your last hour. Come and face this witch's power. "
She stepped through the fire of her own making, and out of the circle. The black wolf formed out of the fog and snarled at the edge of the clearing. Even as she moved forward, Sam lifted his ritual sword. A wild blue light speared from the tip as he spun out, using his body to shield hers.
"No. " A trickle of panic cut through her fierce control, and the light around the clearing wavered. "This isn't yours. "
She stared at him, and even as the wolf took the first testing step into the clearing, her panic receded. Her power built from the heart, and spread through her.
"I won't lose," she said quietly. "I can't. " With her destiny bright in her mind, she ran from the clearing with the wolf leaping after her.
It would end where she chose to end it. Of that she was certain. She flew through the woods, the heat of her body cutting through the icy fog that covered ground and path and stung the swirling air. What pursued her screamed with greed. She knew every twist of the path, every rise of the earth, and ran through the storm-wracked night, an arrow with the target already in sight. She broke out of the woods and raced unerringly for the cliffs rising slick and black from the stinking mist. Gathering, she hurled power behind her to gain the time she needed, and heard the cry of pain and outrage. And felt, beneath it, the sly pleasure.
She was beyond her circle. Separated and alone. And standing now on the cliffs where the one who was Fire had made her last choice. Behind her was the roaring sea, below her the unforgiving rocks. Trapped. She heard the whisper in her head. Stand, and be ripped to pieces. Step back, step off, and escape.
Breathless from the run and what was building inside her, she inched back. Wind snatched at the wet hem of her robe, and the slippery rocks beneath her trembled and shook. The island was coated with fog, smothered with its weight. But that she'd anticipated. She saw one clear circle at the edge of the village where the light beamed like a thousand candles. That she hadn't anticipated, nor the rush of energy that streamed from it, and into her like love. She wrapped it close, shielded it with her own power, and watched the wolf climb slowly up the cliffs. Stalk me, she thought. Yes, come closer. I've waited for this all my life. It bared its teeth and rose, like a man, on its hind legs. Fear me. For I am your death. I bring you pain.
A black bolt spilled out of the sky and scorched the rock at her feet. She inched back and saw the triumph gleam in those red eyes.
"I'm not done," she said coolly, and hurled a stream of fire at him. It was what Sam saw when he tore out of the trees. Mia standing on the edge of the cliff, her white robe shining like silver, her hair flying in the wind, while the monstrous black form rose over her. Fire burst around them, and smoke spewed thick. Out of the turbulent sky, spears of light fell like flaming rain. His cry was more of fury than fear as, with his sword sizzling like lightning, he charged the cliffs. Now! she thought, and whirled on the rocks as if she stood in a ballroom. "On this night I rejoice and make my choice. He chooses me, and I choose him. " She flung out her arms, baring her heart. "This light no force has power to dim. My heart is his, and his for me. And this is our joined destiny. My death I'd give for theirs to spare," she shouted, her voice like thunder as the others spilled out of the woods. "For those I love all would I dare. Three hundred years to end this strife, by these words: I choose love. " She clamped her hand over Sam's as he leaped up beside her. "I choose life. "
The wolf form shuddered into a man. The faces of him, legion, shifted and melted into each other. Her mark scored them all. "You save this place, but not yourself. " His breath spewed out, rotted and foul.
"You'll go with me. "
It leaped, and Sam's sword, bright as water, swung out. "Her mark. And my mark. " As it cleaved, the form spilled into a mist that slithered over the rocks like snakes.
"Bullies never play fair," Mia said as the mist hissed and spit and crawled toward her feet. Power, a
steady stream of white, burned in her. "It's for me to finish. "
"Then finish it," Sam told her.
She tossed aside all shields, opened all locks. The power that had pulsed inside her burst free so that she stood aflame under the ravaged sky. "By all I am, by all I'll be, I hurl the darkness back at thee. With courage, justice, hand, and heart I finish what my blood did start. Now you taste the fear most dire, as you face my righteous fire. "
She stretched out her arm, and in her cupped fingers a ball of flame formed. "Your fate is wrought by the sisters three. As we will, so mote it be. "
For Lulu, she thought. And for all the other innocents.
She hurled the ball into the mists. They burned, writhing. Burned as they spilled over the edge of the cliffs and fell howling into the sea.
"Drown in hell. " Sam's voice echoed. "Die in the dark. Burn eternally with my woman's mark. Your force is crushed by this vast sea. "
"As we will," Mia said, turning to him.
"So mote it be. " He stepped back, drew her with him. "Come away from the edge, Mia. "
"But it's a lovely view. " She laughed, a full-throated, joyous sound and lifted her face to the sky, where stars burst out of the clouds. The moon sailed, a white ship on a calm sea. "God, what a feeling. You'll have questions," she said. "I need a minute first, with Nell and Ripley. "
"Go ahead. "
She walked down the cliffs and into the arms of her sisters.
Later, she left the others in her kitchen and went out into the garden with Sam. "It may be hard for you to understand why I didn't share everything I intended with you, with all of you. It wasn't arrogance, it was - "
The words clogged in her throat when he spun her into his arms, held her crushed against him.
"Necessary," she managed.
"Just don't talk for a minute. Just - Mia. " He buried his face in her hair, rocking, chanting soft words, wild words in Gaelic. Then just as abruptly, he yanked her away, gave her one hard shake. "Necessary, my ass. Necessary to rip the heart out of my chest? Do you know what it was like to see you standing on the edge of that cliff, with that thing coming at you?"
"Yes. " She framed his face in her hands. "Yes. It was the only way, Sam. The only way I knew to be sure. To end it without harm to anyone. "
"Answer me one question. Look straight at me when you answer it. Would you have sacrificed yourself?"
"No. " When his eyes narrowed, she kept hers level. "Risking one's life is different from sacrificing it. Did I risk it, yes, I did. Clearheadedly, because I'm a practical woman with a healthy appreciation for life. I risked it for the only real mother I've ever known. For this place and the people on it. For them," she said, gesturing toward the house. "For the children to come from them. For you. For us. But I intended to live, and as you can see, I did. "
"You planned to leave the circle that way. You planned to take it to the cliffs. Alone. "
"It was meant to end there. I'd prepared in every way I knew how, considered every possibility. And still I missed one that you didn't. When I looked down from the cliffs and saw that circle of light. . . . Sam. " Swamped with love, she leaned into him. "When I felt that strength, that love and faith sweeping up and into me, it was the greatest gift. Who knows what would have happened without it? You did that. By asking for help when I didn't think of it. "
"Islanders stick together. Spread the word to a few people - "
"And word spreads to a few more," she finished. "And they gathered around the cottage and in the woods tonight. All those hearts and minds turned toward me. "
She pressed her hands between her breasts where that song still sang. "Strong magic. You have to understand," she continued, easing back, "I couldn't tell you, any of you. I couldn't allow myself to open even that much, take the chance that what was in my own mind and heart would be read by what we were going to fight. I had to wait until everything was in place. "
"I'm working on that, Mia, but this wasn't your fight. It was ours. "
"I wasn't sure of that. I wanted to be, but I wasn't sure until you stepped out of the circle in front of me. And what you felt for me . . . telling me you love me paled with feeling it burst out of you in that one moment. I knew you'd come after me. I knew then, without question, that we had to finish it together. I need to tell you . . . "
She shook her head, stepped away from him until she was
She turned to him. "It hurt to look at you. As I said, I'm a practical woman, and I dislike pain. I dealt with that. I wanted you, but I didn't have to unlock that love to have you. So I thought. " She brushed his hair from his forehead. "So I wished. But the lock wouldn't hold, and that love spilled out. It was different than it had been, but I didn't see, didn't want to see. Because looking hurt again. Every time you told me you loved me, it was a knife in my heart. "
"Mia - "
"No. I'll finish. The night we sat out here in the garden, with the butterfly? Before you came I'd been trying to settle my mind, once and for all. To reason it all out, to prepare myself. You sat, and you smiled at me, and everything inside me shifted. As if it had only been waiting for that one moment, that one look. When you told me you loved me, it didn't hurt. It didn't hurt at all. Do you know how it made me feel?"
"No. " He skimmed his knuckles over her cheek. "Tell me. "
"Happy. Down-in-the-gut happy. Sam. " She ran her hands down his arms, couldn't stop touching him.
"What I felt for you then, and now, and always will isn't a girl's love. It bloomed out of that, but it's new. It doesn't need fantasies or wishes. If you go - "
"I'm not - "
"If you go again, what I feel for you won't change or be locked away. I had to know that, without a shadow of doubt. I'll cherish it, and what we made together. I know you love me, and that's enough. "
"Do you think I'd leave you now?"
"That's not the point. " Flying on her own heart, she stepped back, turned in a circle. "The point is, I love you enough to let you go. That I won't wonder or worry, or look at you with that shadow on my heart. I love you enough to be with you. To live with you. With no regrets, no conditions. "
"Come here, will you? Right here," he said pointing in front of him. She nodded and walked to him. "Close enough?"
"Do you see these?" He lifted the chain so that the rings were in her line of vision.
"What are they? They're beautiful. " She reached out to touch, and her breath caught at the warmth and the light that pulsed from them. "Their rings," she whispered. "Hers and his. "
"I found his in that cave I told you about, in Ireland. And hers just a matter of days ago, here. In our cave. Can you see what's carved on them, and inside them?"
She traced her finger over the Celtic symbols and read, as her heart began to thud, the Gaelic inside the circles.
He slid the chain over his head, took the smaller ring off. "This is yours. "
All the power that still surged inside her seemed to pause. As if a million breaths were held. "Why are you giving it to me?"
"Because he couldn't keep the promise. But I will. I want to make it to you. I want you to make it to me. Now, and again when you marry me. And every day after that. I want to say it to you every time one of our children is born. "
Her gaze flew up to his. "Children. "
"I had a vision," he began, and brushed the first tear away with his fingertip as it spilled down her cheek.
"You were working in the garden in the very early spring. The leaves were just a green haze, and the sun was soft and yellow. When I came out to you, you stood up. You were so beautiful, Mia. More beautiful than I've ever seen you. You were full with our child. I put my hand on you, over it, and felt it move. Felt that life we'd made just . . . surge. So impatient to be born. I had no idea. "
He took her face in his hands. "No idea what that would mean. No idea that I could want, so much, everything I saw and felt in that one slice of time. Make a life with me, Mia. Our life, and what comes from it. "
"I thought the magic was done for the night. Yes. " She pressed her lips to his cheek. "Yes. " And to the other. "To everything," she said, laughing now as her lips found his. He circled her once, then took her right hand. "That's the wrong finger," she told him.
"You can't wear it on the left until we're married. Let's be a little traditional. And since we are, though I think people who've been in love all their lives should have a very short engagement . . . "
He opened his hand, and where her tear had lain was a slice of light. Grinning at her, he tossed it high, and stars fountained from it, raining down like little sparks of flame.
"A symbol," he said, plucking one of the lights from the air. "A promise. I'll give you the stars, Mia. "
Turning his hand over, he offered her a circle ringed with diamonds clear as water, bright as fire.
"I'll take them. And you. Oh, and you, Sam. " She held out her hand, absorbing the thrill as he slipped the pledge onto her finger. And there it glittered. "What magic we'll make!"
"Let's start now. "
Laughing with her, he lifted her off her feet and danced her around a garden bursting with flowers. And their stars shimmered brilliant against the dark.
by Nora Roberts / Fiction / Suspense / Fantasy have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on39 votes