Hunting Ground Chapter THIRTEEN

SHE took the stairs in two jumps and ran out the door, brushing past Tom and ignoring Angus's shout. She ran past the parked cars and out into the street, turning down toward the water. Of course Dana would be headed toward the water.

"Where are you going?" Tom asked, running beside her.

"Carnwennen the means," Anna told him, showing him the dagger.

He stumbled once, but caught up to her. "Fae shit," he said.

"The Gray Lords," Anna agreed. "Carnwennen the means. Justice the cause. True love the reward. Their geas the cost."

"Zapped," he said, pulling out his cell phone. "Yeah, Angus. The fae got to her. Best I can figure it, they're sending Anna out after Dana-can't think they'd be concerned with the vampire who escaped, and he's the only other player in this. She's speaking goobledygook, but it sounds to me like maybe they've promised her it'll save Charles."

"Stay with her. Help her if you can." Angus sounded frustrated. "He's going to kill me if something happens to her."

"Charles?" Anna asked through the haze that kept her running away from him.

"Yes, him too-though I was talking about Bran."

She made an impatient sound.

"Charles is still with us," Angus said. "Moira says if Dana did this, that probably it'll stop with her death. But fae are hard to kill."

"Oh, I think that the dagger they gave Anna will kill a fae all right," Tom said. "Stinks to high heaven of magic. And it has a name. Fae things that have a name will usually kill just about anything. Do you know of a dagger called-Carnwellen?"

Angus repeated the question for the only one at Arthur's house who couldn't just listen in to the whole conversation. "Moira, do you know of a dagger called Carnwellen?"

"Carnwennen?" Moira squeaked.

"Probably. Tom said the other."

"Carnwennen was King Arthur's dagger. Little White Hilt, it means. Arthur used it to hunt the Very Black Witch."

"It has a white hilt," observed Tom. "Doesn't look all that little to me. 'Bout as long as her forearm, almost enough to be a short sword instead of a dagger."

"It couldn't have been too little," said Moira, when Tom's reply had been repeated for her. "He supposedly cut the witch in half with it."

Anna saw Tom look at the dagger again.

"Yes," he said. "I think it might be good for something like that."

"Keep safe," Angus told him.

"Remember," Moira said, urgently. "Never trust the fae."

Anna frowned, "The troll told us that."

"Told you what?" Tom asked.

But Anna was more concerned with finding Dana than in repeating herself. A paved trail broke off from the road, and Tom caught her arm, pulling her to a stop. "Anna, are we going to Dana's boat?"

"I don't know," she told him-and pointed her finger. "That way."

"We could have taken a car, you know?" he said, folding his cell phone closed with one hand and stuffing it into a pocket.

He was wrong. "No, no car."

His eyebrows lowered. "Of course not. Fairy magic, eh? Cold iron." He took a good look at her wrist manacles. "I would have thought those would keep you safe."

"I have to go," she told him intensely. "Now."

"This is the Burke-Gilman Trail," he told her. "If you are headed to Dana's boat, this trail goes right by her dock. It's a more direct route than running down the road-and we're much less likely to attract interest with that thing. Not many people out on a jogging path in the middle of winter at this hour of the morning."

Then he let her go. Let her decide.

She ran down the trail, stretching her legs and letting the hunt take her. Wild Hunt. It was early morning, but the darkness still kept watch over them, darkness and the faintest sliver of the moon. It was almost the time of the dark of the moon, she thought, but there was still light to hunt by tonight.

THEY were nearly to the docks when the geas faded. She could see Dana's houseboat-but was able to force her legs to walk. Once she had slowed, it wasn't such a hard thing to stop altogether. The manacles were doing the trick, she thought, because it seemed like her hands and feet returned to her control before any other part of her body.

"Tom?" Anna asked, panting.

"All praise to the Virgin Mother," he said. "You're back with me."

"Magic," she said.

"Right. What happened to you?"

She told him, speaking faster as her tongue started working right again.

"Dead bodies talking, eh?" he said. "Nasty." Then he called Moira and Anna told the story to the witch-and presumably all the werewolves gathered around the phone.

"She who takes the dead..." Moira sounded exhausted. "That would probably be one of the Morrigan. Babd or maybe Nemain, probably not Macha. Sorry, you don't need that. My concentration's shot. They want you to kill Dana. Why?"

"She broke her word," Angus said. "Now she's got to be an example. I don't like them using Anna to do it."

"Wild Hunt," Anna said. "They called the Wild Hunt, I think that's what they said. Some of it was a little difficult to interpret. It sounded like the hunt was just to be me."

"They sent a wolf stuck in human form with a dagger-however enchanted-after a woman who is a Gray Lord," Angus said heavily, to whoever else was listening-or maybe just to himself. "I don't think she was meant to succeed."

She is Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Brother Wolf spoke to her in clear words for the first time. His voice sounded like Charles, but not quite and it thundered through their bond.

After the words, he added a flood of information that had no words. Pain that he tried to keep veiled from her-not hiding it, but protecting her from it. The dagger was part of a treasure stolen by Arthur-including Excalibur, which Dana now had. Worry and command-she was to return to Arthur's apartment and wait for the Marrok. She was to stay away from Dana. He thought she was being used to return the dagger to Dana, for safekeeping.

He thought she was only a warning, meant to be destroyed after she delivered her message.

And then Brother Wolf was gone again-and the bond felt... weaker.

"Never trust the fae," Anna said. She believed Brother Wolf. But she was the only one who had heard him, thank goodness, or they would not let her do what she needed to.

"Moira. How is Charles?"

"Not good."

She knew that, felt it while Brother Wolf communicated with her. "How long does he have?"

"I can help for maybe fifteen minutes more-and then it's just a matter of time. He's in a lot of pain, I think, and that doesn't help."

"If he-" She had to suck in her breath and try again. "If he had died before you got there, would you have been able to tell what had killed him? That it was a death curse? That a fae had laid it upon him?"

"No," Moira told her. "I can't tell who laid it upon him now. If he were dead, probably no one could even tell for certain that it was magic that killed him. If Charles hadn't still been fighting it-"

"And Dana had no way to know that Angus and I both know that she's broken her word to Bran. She would have thought Charles was the only one." She was talking to herself. "How far out is the Marrok?"

She wasn't even sure Bran could help. She'd learned he wasn't infallible, just scary.

"He'll be landing at Sea-Tac in ten minutes."

"Not soon enough," Anna said. She ended the call.

"What are you planning?" Tom asked.

"I think that's too cerebral a name for it," she told him. "I'm playing it by ear. But I think this is Charles's only chance." It was meant to be her death. Charles was dying.

The phone rang.

Tom looked down at it. "Angus. He might tell us to go ahead."

"And if he doesn't?"

Tom turned his phone off. "Do we go in together, or do you want me as backup?"

She thought about it. "She likes men. I think that this might go better if you come with me." She looked again. "But let me borrow your jacket." People underestimated her all the time. Maybe the Gray Lords had, too.

THE water was black under the floating dock, and Anna had no desire whatsoever to play. She knocked at the door, glad for Tom at her back.

"Who is it?" Dana's voice sounded as if she were standing beside them.

"You know who it is," said Anna, not bothering to raise her voice-Dana could hear her. "I have something for you. A gift, a warning-it depends upon you."

"I'm in the studio." The door opened.

Anna led the way through the boat and up the stairs to the studio.

The lights were on, and otherwise the scene was very much like the one the fae had set the first time Anna had been here. She was working on a painting that Anna could not see. The painting the Marrok had sent was hung on the left-hand wall, all by itself. A sword leaned casually against the same wall, but closer to the far side of the room than to the middle. It looked very much like the one Arthur had shown her, had claimed to be Excalibur. From what Brother Wolf told her, this one was likely to be the real thing. Its duplicate was shattered all over Arthur's treasure room, having spent itself defending her mate.

"The Gray Lords sent me here to attempt to kill you," Anna told the fae woman, who had not looked up from her painting.

"Brother Wolf thinks I'm a messenger," Anna continued, "sent here to warn you that if you do this again, the Wild Hunt itself will be sent to you. He believes I've been sent to bring you their gift. And for you to kill." She took a deep breath. "And I think he is right."

The fae looked up from her painting. She was beautiful. Not a cold, flawless beauty, but striking. This was a woman who would be terrible in her anger and fierce in battle. Anna felt the same fascination for Dana that had hit her the very first time she'd seen her.

Anna took a deep breath and closed her right hand over the steel manacle on her left wrist. When she looked again, Dana was still beautiful-but Anna didn't feel as though she was being sucked into her beauty anymore.

Dana smiled, as if Anna's struggles amused her. "Who is Brother Wolf?"

"A friend." Anna didn't want to give Dana anything she might use. "I was meant to come here and attack you-but they didn't count on the little present Arthur's vampires left me with." She showed Dana one of her wrist manacles and shook one foot to make the chains jingle.

"Their failure left me with a few options-and you as well. If I had attacked you, and you killed me... you would be in their power, wouldn't you."

"I am a Gray Lord-I answer to no one."

"When Charles dies. When you kill me-the Marrok would hunt you down. You'd be forced to die or leave this continent. To go back to Europe. To be under their thumbs."

Dana's lips thinned with anger and-Anna's nose told her-a wisp of fear.

"You said you brought me a gift?"

Dana was just trying to change the subject, Anna judged. But Anna was in control of the conversation.

"You didn't know," she said, sounding, with some effort, relatively sympathetic, "when you cursed Charles, that we all knew you broke your word to protect the wolves attending this conference, did you? I saw, Angus saw-and we told Bran and Charles. Not enough for an accusation. But more than enough that if Charles died of unnatural causes, Bran would look right at you."

The fae put down her paintbrush and used it as an excuse to look away. But Anna could tell a lot more from scent than she could from her expression, anyway. The scent of panic was an old friend. She wasn't afraid of Anna. She was afraid of the Marrok. Good. Hopefully it would be enough.

Anna strolled around the painting, until she stood only a couple of feet from Dana.

"Nimue, Lady of the Lake," Anna said, calling upon the part of her that soothed and calmed. "Take the curse off my husband. My word on it that no word of your deceit makes its way out into the world." And my word is good, she thought, but she didn't say it. "The Marrok will not hunt you, nor harry you out of his lands."

The fae stared at the painting on the easel. Picasso was a wiser choice than Vermeer, Anna thought inconsequen tially. Not even experts could agree on what Picasso was trying to say with his paintings. No one could tell Dana she'd gotten it wrong.

"No," said Dana, her voice thick with rage. She raised her hand and pointed it at the painting, not hers, but the one on the wall-the Marrok's gift. "I have not hurt so in a thousand years. Look what he did to me. Every time I look at that, it feels... it feels as it did the day I had to leave it. I vowed before the both of you that I would repay him in kind. That he would pay, and pay in the same way I do-with the same sorrow. I lost my home, he loses his son. I will go back to Europe, and he will-"

Anna stabbed her with the dagger she'd concealed in Tom's jacket. Under the ribs and through the heart-just like her favorite forensic TV show had taught her.

The fae's eyes flashed surprise, just for an instant, before there was nothing in them at all.

" 'No' was the wrong answer," Anna informed her.

"Don't move," said Tom, and he used the sword that had been sitting against the wall.

Anna pulled the dagger out of the body and cleaned it with a rag Dana had on the small table with her paints. Trying to avoid thinking about what had just happened. And failing miserably.

"That's six headless bodies this trip," she said, hating that her voice shook. "And I'm not counting the first two vampires we killed-because their bodies are dust. Six is just a bit much, don't you think?"

"Maybe she'd have stayed dead," Tom told her. "I don't know much about killing fae. Cold iron is supposed to do the trick-and that dagger's got plenty of that, nice sharp cold iron. But I for damned sure didn't want to run into her ever again after this, so there's no harm in making sure."

"Would you... would you call?" Had she been in time? Did it even work? Was Charles dying while she stood here?

Tom took the bloody rag from her and wiped the sword clean with a few efficient swipes. Then he handed it to her and pulled out his cell.

"Hey, Moira," he said. "How's Charles?"

"Better." Moira sounded half-dead. "Not good. Not good by a long shot. But the curse dissipated a few minutes ago. He'll make it."

"That's what happens when an Omega goes negotiating," Angus commented. "Even the fae can't stand against one."

Tom looked down at Dana's body. "Just so," he said. "Though I don't know that anyone expected exactly this result."

THE troll, in his guise as a street person, was waiting for them just outside the door. He was leaning against the boat, smoking a cigarette and watching his feet.

Tom stepped in front of Anna.

"Well," said the troll, soft-voiced. "I guess that showed 'em. Wasn't no one thought ye had it in ye, Lady. Most especially that one." He tilted his head at the boat.

"She was going to kill my mate."

The troll nodded. "And yourself, too, sounded like. She should have knowed that some people take things like the killing of mates right to heart, all right." He stubbed the cigarette out on his thumb and tossed it into the water. "I'm supposed to take possession of the-"

Anna stepped around Tom and held out the dagger in one hand and the sword in the other.

"They aren't mine," she said. "I don't want them."

The troll stepped back, then had to do some fancy footwork to keep from falling in the water. "Don't you be wishing those on me. Don't you. I'm supposed to take possession of the body. We'll see to it Ms. Dana Shea doesn't get discovered." He seemed calmer once Anna let her hands drop and quit holding out the weaponry. "That's better, there see. Now I'm supposed to ask you to watch over those a little bit longer. Someone will be along to collect them later. Someone else." And just in case she hadn't gotten it, he said. "Someone not me."

"All right," Anna said. "Agreed."

He pulled off the old trench coat he was wearing. "Happen you might want to bundle things up in here. It'll keep 'em out of sight-a little magic... and a lot of material."

She bit back a thank-you. Tom, who took the coat, didn't seem to have the same trouble.

"I'll see that the coat goes to whoever gets the weapons," Tom said instead. "Maybe they can return it."

The troll nodded once and went into the boat.

"Troll," said Tom thoughtfully, and knocked twice on the side of the boat with his knuckles. "I don't suppose I needed to cut the head off, after all. Bon appetit."

THEY were maybe halfway back, although Anna was stumbling tired, so her estimate of distance could have been way off, when she noticed an expensive but anonymous car purring at a junction between the path they were on and a cross street.

"I see it," said Tom, moving between her and the car.

Very conscious of what she was carrying, Anna didn't protest. She didn't want the sword-but there were a lot of people she didn't want to have the sword either. Like the vampire who'd gotten away.

She dropped back a dozen feet and let Tom take the lead. If only the sword had been a gun. She knew how to use a gun.

The back door of the car opened and Bran got out.

Tom didn't look relieved. So Anna broke into what was supposed to be a run but came out as a faster shuffle. "It's good, it's good. Tom, meet Bran Cornick, the Marrok. Bran, this is Tom. I don't remember his last name, but he saved my life."

"Tom Franklin," Bran said. "Thank you. Anna..." He shook his head. "Words fail me."

"Here." She shoved the coat with sword and dagger at Bran. "You take these. I don't want them. Someone is supposed to come pick them up later."

"Ah," he said, and looked down at the battered material. "Seattle is not the place I would have expected to encounter these." He seemed to know what he held even though they were both still wrapped up.

Tom grinned. "Seattle is a city with a certain... panache. Never know what you are going to find when you come for a visit. Good food, friendly people, ancient legendary weapons. Always something different."

"Get in the car," Bran told them. "They're all on the way to Angus's house."

"Charles?" Anna couldn't help but sound anxious.

"He wanted to come with me," Bran said. "But I told him he'd have to wait until he could walk under his own power. He's on his way to Angus's if he's not already there." He got in the car, and Anna slid in next to him, leaving the window seat for Tom.

Bran gave her a laughing glance. "He wasn't happy with me. Or you either. Expect him to yell at you because you scared him badly this time."

"Sounds unfair, to me," Anna said, though it didn't bother her. "I risk my neck to save him, and he yells at me." Charles was alive, he could yell at her all he wanted to.

"If it gets to you, just shed a few tears," muttered Tom. "He'll shut up. Works for Moira."

"Arthur's dead, Dana is dead. Five of the six vampires are dead," Anna said. "There's only one villain left."

"We don't have to worry about the vampire who escaped," Bran told her. "The local vampires found him and took care of it. They are apparently sending Angus proof."

"Good," said Tom.

"Good" was the wrong word, Anna thought. "Good" shouldn't apply to headless bodies and dead people. But she didn't have a better word.

Anna had to ask. "Bran? Could you have done anything to stop the fae from killing Charles? Should I have waited for you?" Did I just kill unnecessarily?

He must have heard her unspoken worry. "In human courts, the least of the charges facing Dana would have been conspiracy to commit murder. Charles confirms that she knew Arthur planned on killing Sunny. Jean Chastel. Charles. She was in the process of killing Charles. That's attempted murder." He shook his head. "Do not regret her death."

"She was the Lady of the Lake," Anna said in a small voice.

"And being famous should have made her immune to the consequences of her actions?"

He pulled her head toward him and kissed her forehead. "Ego te absolvo. There is some Latin for you, my dear. I absolve you of your guilt. You did well. The only way I could have stopped her was the same way you did. And I would have been too late."

"De duobus malis, minus est semper eligendum," she murmured. "Her death was the lesser evil."

CHARLES sat in lone splendor on a huge couch in the middle of Angus's spacious living room-while the other ten or twelve people present made themselves at home on the other side of the room.

Anna surveyed the scene. "Okay," she said. "Who's been being a grouch."

He looked at her. For such a look, she thought, she'd have done a lot more than kill. He patted the couch beside him, but she crawled into his lap instead.

"I've had a really bad night," she said. "Any chance we can get some sleep?"

Charles kissed her, a long, involved kiss that took no prisoners. When he was finished, she licked her lips, and said, in a voice that was a little breathless, "Does that mean no?"

"I would slay dragons for you," he told her. "I suspect that finding an unoccupied bedroom will be easier."

She pulled away a little, just far enough that she could see his face. "Dragons, huh. Well, I killed the Lady of the Lake for you, sir."

He cupped her face in his hands, "I'm sorry, Anna."

Te absolve, indeed, she thought. Faced with Charles's warm and undeniably living flesh, she would have killed the fae over again. "I'm not," she said. "I love you."

Angus sighed. "Lovebirds," he said.


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