How far away the stars seem,
and how far is our first kiss,
and, ah, how old is my heart.
—WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
It will have blood; they say,
blood will have blood.
ON A BRIGHT DAY AS SUMMER FADED, BRANNAUGH gathered herbs, flowers, foliage, all for salves and potions and teas. They came to her, neighbors, travelers, for their hopes and healings. They came to her, the Dark Witch, as once they’d come to her mother, with aches in body, in heart, in spirit, and paid with coin or service or trade.
So she and her brother, her sister, had built their lives in Clare, so far from their home in Mayo. Far from the cabin in the woods where they had lived, where their mother had died.
So she had built her life, more contented, more joyful than she’d believed possible since that terrible day their mother had given them all but the dregs of her own power, had sent them away to be safe as she sacrificed herself.
All grief, Brannaugh thought now, all duty and fear as she’d done what was asked of her, as she’d led her younger brother and little sister away from home.
They’d left love, childhood, and all innocence behind.
Long years. The first few spent, as their mother had bid, with their cousin and her man—safe, tended, welcomed. But the time had come, as time does, to leave that nest, to embrace who and what they were, and would ever be.
The Dark Witches three.
Their duty, their purpose above all else? To destroy Cabhan, the dark sorcerer, the murderer of their father, Daithi the brave, of their mother, Sorcha. Cabhan, who had somehow survived the spell the dying Sorcha had cast.
But on such a bright day in summer’s end, it all seemed so far away—the terrors of that last winter, the blood and death of that last spring.
Here, in the home she’d made, the air smelled of the rosemary in her basket, of the roses planted by her husband on the birth of their first child. The clouds puffed white as lambs across the blue meadow of the sky, and the woods, the little fields they’d cleared, as green as emeralds.
Her son, not yet three years, sat in a patch of sun and banged on the little drum his father had made him. He sang and hooted and beat with such joyous innocence her eyes burned from the love.
Her daughter, barely a year, slept clutching her favored rag doll while guarded by Kathel, their faithful hound.
And another son stirred and kicked in her womb.
From where she stood she could see the clearing, and the little cabin she, Eamon, and Teagan had built near to eight years before. Children, she thought now. They’d been but children who could not embrace childhood.
They lived there still, close. Eamon the loyal, so strong and true. Teagan, so kind and fair. So happy now, Brannaugh thought, and Teagan so in love with the man she’d married in the spring.
All so peaceful, she thought, despite Brin’s banging and hooting. The cabin, the trees, the green hills with their dots of sheep, the gardens, the bright blue sky.
And it would have to end. It would have to end soon.
The time was coming—she felt it as sure as she felt the babe’s kicks in her womb. The bright days would give way to the dark. The peace would end in blood and battle.
She touched the amulet with its symbol of a hound. The protection her mother had conjured with blood magicks. Soon, she thought, all too soon now, she would need that protection again.
She pressed a hand to the small of her back as it ached a bit, and saw her man riding toward home.
Eoghan, so handsome, so hers. Eyes as green as the hills, hair a raven’s wing that curled to his shoulders. He rode tall and straight and easy on the sturdy chestnut mare, his voice lifted—as often it was—in song.
By the gods, he made her smile, he made her heart lift like a bird on the wing. She, who had been so sure there could be no love for her, no family but her blood, no life but her purpose, had fallen deeper than oceans for Eoghan of Clare.
Brin leaped up, began to run as fast as his little legs could manage, all the while calling.
“Da, Da, Da!”
Eoghan leaned down, scooped the boy up in the saddle. The laugh, the man’s, the boy’s mixed, flew toward her. Her eyes stung yet again. In that moment, she would have given all of her power, every drop given her, to spare them what was to come.
The baby she’d named for her mother whimpered, and Kathel stirred his old bones to let out a soft woof.
“I hear her.” Brannaugh set down her basket, moved over to lift her waking daughter, snuggled her in with kisses as Eoghan rode up beside her.
“Look here, would you, what I found on the road. Some little lost gypsy.”
“Ah well, I suppose we should keep him. It may be he’ll clean up fine, then we can sell him at the market.”
“He might fetch us a good price.” Eoghan kissed the top of his giggling son’s head. “Off you go, lad.”
“Ride, Da!” Brin turned his head, beseeched with big dark eyes. “Please! Ride!”
“A quick one, then I want me tea.” He winked at Brannaugh before setting off in a gallop that had the boy shouting with delight.
Brannaugh picked up her basket, shifted young Sorcha on her hip. “Come, old friend,” she said to Kathel. “It’s time for your tonic.”
She moved to the pretty cottage Eoghan with his clever hands and strong back had built. Inside, she stirred the fire, settled her daughter, started the tea.
Stroking Kathel, she doused him with the tonic she’d conjured to keep him healthy and clear-eyed. Her guide, her heart, she thought, she could stretch his life a few years more. And would know when the time came to let him go.
But not yet, no, not yet.
She set out honey cakes, some jam, and had the tea ready when Eoghan and Brin came in, hand in hand.
“Well now, this is fine.”
He scrubbed Brin’s head, leaned down to kiss Brannaugh, lingered over it as he always did.
“You’re home early,” she began, then her mother’s eye caught her son reaching for a cake. “Wash those hands first, my boy, then you’ll sit like a gentleman for your tea.”
“They’re not dirty, Ma.” He held them out.
Brannaugh just lifted her eyebrows at the grubby little hands. “Wash. The both of you.”
“There’s no arguing with women,” Eoghan told Brin. “It’s a lesson you’ll learn. I finished the shed for the widow O’Brian. It’s God’s truth her boy is useless as teats on a billy goat, and wandered off to his own devices. The job went quicker without him.”
He spoke of his work as he helped his son dry his hands, spoke of work to come as he swung his daughter up, set her to squealing with delight.
“You’re the joy in this house,” she murmured. “You’re the light of it.”
He gave her a quiet look, set the baby down again. “You’re the heart of it. Sit down, off your feet awhile. Have your tea.”
He waited. Oh, she knew him for the most patient of men. Or the most stubborn, for one was often the same as the other, at least wrapped inside the like of her Eoghan.
So when the chores were finished, and supper done, when the children tucked up for the night, he took her hand.
“Will you walk out with me, lovely Brannaugh? For it’s a fine night.”
How often, she wondered, had he said those words to her when he wooed her—when she tried flicking him away like a gnat in the air?
Now, she simply got her shawl—a favorite Teagan had made her—wrapped it around her shoulders. She glanced at Kathel lying by the fire.
Watch the babes for me, she told him, and let Eoghan draw her out into the cool, damp night.
“Rain’s coming,” she said. “Before morning.”
“Then we’re lucky, aren’t we, to have the night.” He laid a hand over her belly. “All’s well?”
“It is. He’s a busy little man, always on the move. Much like his father.”
“We’re well set, Brannaugh. We could pay for a bit of help.”
She slanted him a look. “Do you have complaints about the state of the house, the children, the food on the table?”
“I don’t have a one, not for a single thing. I watched my mother work herself to bones.” As he spoke he rubbed the small of her back, as if he knew of the small, nagging ache there. “I wouldn’t have it of you, aghra.”
“I’m well, I promise you.”
“Why are you sad?”
“I’m not.” A lie, she realized, and she never lied to him. “A little. Carrying babies makes a woman a bit daft from time to time, as you should know. Didn’t I weep buckets when carrying Brin when you brought in the cradle you’d made? Wept as if the world was ending.”
“From joy. This isn’t joy.”
“There is joy. Only today I stood here, looking at our children, feeling the next move in me, thinking of you, and of the life we have. Such joy, Eoghan. How many times did I say no to you when you asked me to be yours?”
“Once was too many.”
She laughed, though the tears rose up in her throat. “But you would ask again, and again. You wooed me with song and story, with wildflowers. Still, I told you I would be no man’s wife.”
“None but mine.”
“None but yours.”
She breathed in the night, the scent of the gardens, the forest, the hills. She breathed in what had become home, knowing she would leave it for the home of childhood, and for destiny.
“You knew what I was, what I am. And still, you wanted me—not the power, but me.”
Knowing that meant all the world to her, and knowing it had opened the heart she’d determined to keep locked.
“And when I could no longer stop myself from loving you, I told you all there is, all of it, refusing you again. But you asked again. Do you remember what you said to me?”
“I’ll say it to you again.” He turned to her, took her hands as he had on the day years before. “You’re mine, and I am yours. All that you are, I’ll take. All that I am, I’ll give. I’ll be with you, Brannaugh, Dark Witch of Mayo, through fire and flood, through joy and grief, through battle and through peace. Look in my heart, for you have that power. Look in me, and know love.”
“And I did. And I do. Eoghan.” She pressed against him, burrowed into him. “There is such joy.”
But she wept.
He stroked, soothed, then eased her away to see her face in the pale moonlight. “We must go back. Go back to Mayo.”
“Soon. Soon. I’m sorry—”
“No.” He touched his lips to hers, stilled her words. “You will not say so to me. Did you not hear my words?”
“How could I know? Even when you spoke them, when I felt them capture my heart, how could I know I would feel like this? I would wish with all I am to stay, just stay. To be here with you, to leave all the rest behind and away. And I can’t. I can’t give us that. Eoghan, our children.”
“Nothing will touch them.” Again he laid a hand on her belly. “Nothing and no one. I swear it.”
“You must swear it, for when the time comes I must leave them and face Cabhan with my brother and sister.”
“And with me.” He gripped her shoulders as fire and fierceness lit his eyes. “Whatever you face, I face.”
“You must swear.” Gently she drew his hands back down to her belly where their son kicked. “Our children, Eoghan, you must swear to protect them above all. You and Teagan’s man must protect them against Cabhan. I could never do what I must do unless I know their father and their uncle guard and protect them. As you love me, Eoghan, swear it.”
“I would give my life for you.” He rested his brow on hers, and she felt his struggle—man, husband, father. “I swear to you, I would give my life for our children. I will swear to protect them.”
“I am blessed in you.” She lifted his hands from her belly to her lips. “Blessed in you. You would not ask me to stay?”
“All that you are,” he reminded her. “You took an oath, and that oath is mine as well. I am with you, mo chroi.”
“You are the light in me.” On a sigh, she rested her head on his shoulder. “The light that shines in our children.”
She would use all she was to protect that light, all that came from it, and at last, at last, vanquish the dark.
• • •
SHE BIDED, TAKING EACH DAY, HOLDING IT CLOSE. WHEN HER children rested, when the one inside her insisted she rest as well, she sat by the fire with her mother’s spell book. Studied, added her own spells, her own words and thoughts. This, she knew, she would pass down as she passed the amulet. To her children, and to the child who came from her who would carry the purpose of the Dark Witch should she and Eamon, Teagan fail.
Their mother had sworn they—or their blood—would destroy Cabhan. She had seen, with her own eyes, one of their blood from another time, had spoken to him. And she dreamed of another, a woman with her name, who wore the amulet she wore now, who was, as she was, one of three.
Sorcha’s three would have children, and they would have children in turn. So the legacy would continue, and the purpose with it, until it was done. She would not, could not, turn away from it.
She would not, could not, turn away from the stirrings in her own blood as summer drew down.
But she had children to tend, a home to tend in turn, animals to feed and care for, a garden to harvest, the little goat to milk. Neighbors and travelers to heal and help.
And magicks, bright, bright magicks, to preserve.
So with her children napping—and oh, Brin had put up a battle heroic against closing his eyes—she stepped outside for a breath.
And saw her sister, her bright hair braided down her back, walking up the path with a basket.
“You must have heard me wishing for your company, for I’m after some conversation with someone more than two years of age.”
“I’ve brown bread, for I baked more than enough. And I was yearning for you as well.”
“We’ll have some now, as I’m hungry every minute of every day.” Laughing, Brannaugh opened her arms to her sister.
Teagan, so pretty with her hair like sunlight, her eyes like the bluebells their mother had prized.
Brannaugh gathered her close—then immediately drew her back again.
“You’re with child!”
“And you couldn’t give me the chance to say so to you myself?” Glowing, beaming, Teagan grabbed hold for another strong embrace. “I was only just sure of it this morning. I waked, and I knew there was life in me. I haven’t told Gealbhan, for I needed first to tell you. And to be sure of it, absolutely sure. Now I am. I’m babbling like a brook. I can’t stop.”
“Teagan.” Brannaugh’s eyes welled as she kissed her sister’s cheeks, as she remembered the little girl who’d wept on that dark morning so long ago. “Blessed be, deirfiúr bheag. Come inside. I’ll make you some tea, something good for you and the life in you.”
“I want to tell Gealbhan,” she said as she went in with Brannaugh, took off her shawl. “By the little stream where he first kissed me. And then tell Eamon he’ll again be an uncle. I want music and happy voices. Will you and Eoghan bring the children this evening?”
“We will, of course, we will. We’ll have music and happy voices.”
“I miss Ma. Oh, it’s foolish, I know, but I want to tell her. I want to tell Da. I’m holding a life inside me, one that came from them. Was it so with you?”
“Aye, each time. When Brin came, and then my own Sorcha, I saw her for a moment, just for a moment. I felt her, and Da as well. I felt them there when my babes loosed their first cry. There was joy in that, Teagan, and sorrow. And then . . .”
Her gray eyes full of that joy, that sorrow, Brannaugh folded her hands over the child within her. “The love is so fierce, so full. That life that you hold, not in your womb, but in your arms? The love that comes over you? You think you know, then you do, and what you thought you knew is pale and weak against what is. I know what she felt for us now. What she and Da felt for us. You’ll know it.”
“Can it be more than this?” Teagan pressed a hand to her middle. “It feels so huge already.”
“It can. It will.” Brannaugh looked out at the trees, at the rioting gardens. And her eyes went to smoke.
“This son in you, he will not be the one, though he’ll be strong and quick to power. Nor will the son that comes from you after him. The daughter, the third, she is the next. She will be your one of the three. Fair like you, kind in her heart, quick in her mind. You will call her Ciara. One day she will wear the sign our mother made for you.”
Suddenly light-headed, Brannaugh sat. Teagan rushed over to her.
“I’m well; I’m fine. It came over me so quick I wasn’t ready. I’m a bit slower these days.” She patted Teagan’s hand.
“I never looked. I didn’t think to.”
“Why should you think to? You’ve a right simply to be happy. I wouldn’t have spoiled that for all the worlds.”
“You haven’t. How could you spoil anything by telling me I’ll have a son, and another, and a daughter? No, sit as you are. I’ll finish the tea.”
They both glanced toward the door as it opened.
“Sure he has the nose for fresh bread, has Eamon,” Teagan said as their brother walked in with his brown hair tousled, as always, around a heartbreakingly handsome face.
With a grin he sniffed the air like a hound. “I’ve a nose, for certain, but didn’t need it to make my way here. You’ve enough light swirling around the place to turn up the moon. If you’re after doing a spell so bright, you might’ve told me.”
“We weren’t conjuring. Only talking. We’re having a bit of a céili at the cabin this evening. And you can keep Brannaugh company when I leave, so I can have time to tell Gealbhan he’s to be a father.”
“As there’s bread fresh, I can— A father is it?” Eamon’s bold blue eyes filled with delight. “There’s some happy news.” He plucked Teagan off her feet, gave her a swing, then another when she laughed. He set her down in a chair, kissed her, then grinned at Brannaugh. “I’d do the same with you, but it’s like to break my back, as you’re big as a mountain.”
“Don’t think you’ll be adding my jam to that bread.”
“A beautiful mountain. One who’s already given me a handsome nephew and a charming niece.”
“That might get you a dollop.”
“Gealbhan will be overjoyed.” Gently, as he was always gentle with Teagan, he brushed his fingers down her cheek. “You’re well then, are you, Teagan?”
“I feel more than wonderful. I’m likely to cook a feast, which will suit you, won’t it?”