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.