River Marked Chapter 13

SHE DIDN'T AWAKEN ALL AT ONCE--OR ELSE I'D HURT her badly enough that she couldn't react right away. The first thing she did was stretch. When she did, her pectoral fin fluttered and hit my hand, knocking the knife out of my hand. I watched it hit the water and disappear.

The otterkin all pulled back into a semicircle about fifteen feet from her. Under me she writhed, and the back half of her body disappeared underwater. I was going to have to jump and get swimming if I wanted a chance to live through this.

Yes, Mercedes, you should run now, she said. I like to chase my prey.

Instead, I grabbed the edges of her skin and dug my fingers in so she couldn't knock me off. Coyote died to give me this chance, and I had failed him. MacKenzie, who would never grow older than eight years and four days old, had died to give me this chance, and I had failed her and her family. Faith Jamison had come to me, and I had failed her, too.

I had failed them all. But they were dead; they wouldn't care. Adam would care.

I wasn't going to go down without a fight. Not with Adam waiting for me.

A single tentacle snapped back and hit my shinbone with a crack, and the pain didn't touch me. I flattened my hand just as I would have to break a board and hit her heart. My form sucked because I was trying to stay put on a slippery fish who wasn't cooperating, and I might as well have hit her with one of Thunderbird's feathers. I reached in and pulled on her heart with my fingers and got nothing except for a mild zap of magic that felt like I'd grabbed onto an electric fence.

I needed a weapon, something that could penetrate the river devil's magic, and all I had was my bare hands.

Her struggle to wake up pulled me underwater, making it obvious, if I needed to be reminded, that if I changed to a coyote to gain teeth, I'd never manage to stay on her long enough to do anything. I wasn't even sure I could change to a coyote--Coyote was dead. I had nothing.

I was up and out of the water again when a stray thought brushed across my awareness.

Lugh never made anything that couldn't be used as a weapon, the oakman had said.

Maybe I did have a weapon.

Jump, the river devil urged. Run. Swim for shore. I might even let you make it all the way if you swim fast enough. Or maybe I'll decide that living with your failure would be punishment more fitting what you have attempted here.

I opened my hand, and said, "Come on. Now. I need you." Then I reached behind my hip and grabbed the silver-and-oak walking stick.

The river devil writhed, and the section I was on lifted well up out of the water. I used the force of her movement to aid mine as I stabbed down with the end of the staff. As I plunged it down to the heart, I saw the silver-shod end re-form into a spearhead. The spear slid six inches into her heart and stopped as if it had hit something solid. As we began to drop back to the water, the river devil twisted, rolling upright.

All the metal in the staff flared white-hot. My feet slipped off the slick side of the river devil, and instinct had me grab the shaft with all I was worth, even as the heat seared my hands. I doubt I could have held on for another second, but a second was all it took.

The staff started to shift relative to the monster, and I thought my weight was pulling it out, but a frantic look showed me something else, just before water closed over my head.

The staff had sucked the heat from her flesh, turned her black heart to white ice. The weight of my body had given more torque to the staff; the heart cracked and pulled loose from the river devil's body.

Somehow, I ended up under the river devil, and she carried me to the bottom, which was not too deep. I wiggled and pulled to get out from under her--it would be too ironic to end up dead after all of this, dead in less than six feet of water.

I lost track of the walking stick, but that was all right: it would be back. Once I was free, it took me almost too long to decide which way was up. I finally went limp and assumed that up was the direction I floated. I surfaced eventually. Had we been any deeper, I might not have.

There were chunks of ice melting in the water. They reeked of magic and blood and I avoided touching them as I swam very slowly back to shore. When the water was too shallow to swim, I crawled. Getting to my feet was just way too much work.

I struggled out of the water and found a last spurt of strength to get to where Adam lay. With a hand buried in his thick fur, I had enough courage to roll over to look at the river devil. She was floating still, her body moving with the motion of the water. The wound I'd made was still there; it wasn't healing.

"Adam," I said to his unconscious body. "Adam, we did it."

I put my forehead down on his side and let myself believe.

"I should let you live," a man's voice snarled, unconsciously echoing the river devil's words-- or maybe he'd heard her, too.

I looked up to see a man standing between me and the river. His features were all wrong, like a bad drawing. Almost human, but not quite. He wore a dry pair of jeans and a WSU sweatshirt, but his feet were bare. He had a ragged beard that was a slightly darker color than his hair. Though there had been all sorts of emotion in his voice, there was none on his face. It was peculiarly blank, like a particularly strong form of autism: a trait, I decided, with two examples to draw from, that must be common to all otterkin.

"What?" I asked him stupidly because his words didn't quite make sense.

"You blooded one of Lugh's creations in the heart of a creature even older and more magical than the walking stick is," he said. "I should just let you live with what you have made. But you must pay the price for killing our creature, she whom we awakened at great cost from her deep sleep."

I was too tired for this. I hurt. There wasn't any part of me that didn't hurt, but especially my hand where I'd hit the river devil's heart. Actually, both hands throbbed wickedly from grabbing the staff while it was hot. The leg that the river devil had smacked with her tentacle ached, too, that kind of deep ache that told me I'd suffered real damage. I was also bleeding from quite a collection of slices and cuts. It belatedly occurred to me that my weariness might stem from blood loss as much as the energy I'd expended killing the river devil.

"You woke her up." I could sit up, I told my body firmly. It protested, but finally managed. I was going to pull my legs up, too, but, after the first attempt to do so, I decided to leave them where they were for the moment.

"It took us two months and all our magic--and you just killed her? Arrogant vermin interfering in something that is no business of yours." He was holding something in his right hand, I thought, but I couldn't tell what because it was slightly behind him, and I couldn't make my body move again to see what it was just yet.

"That's right," I agreed. "I killed her. It seemed like the proper thing to do at the time--as she was killing a lot of people. Why did you release her?"

"She was ours," he said indignantly. "She was sleeping in our home." He paused, contemplating that, I think, though it was hard to read thought in his face. When he spoke again, his voice was a soft croon. "So beautiful and deadly, my lady was. We woke her up to see her beauty living--and, as we petitioned her to do, she hunted humans until we all fed in the wealth of her hunting. She was everything our hearts could desire. She fed us and we her. She was our weapon of perfect vengeance."

The brush next to him rattled a bit, and more people came out of the bushes. One of them was the woman who had attacked me in Wal-Mart, and she was holding her bronze knife. She was crying, which looked really odd on her blank face.

Uncle Mike said there were seven of them, but I only saw six.

"There should be one more of you, shouldn't there?" I asked.

"One was sacrificed when our Goddess came to life," said the man.

I thought of the dream I'd had, the one where I'd eaten an otter. I'd been river marked then. It never occurred to me that that dream, too, had been a true dream.

Behind him, all of the otterkin's mouths moved at the same time, as if they were mouthing his words as he spoke them. They brought with them an air of menace that was not entirely owed to the weaponry they carried.

There was one big man in the group. I noticed him because over his shoulder he was carrying a big, dark, and shiny stick shaped something like a golf club. I didn't recall ever seeing a shillelagh in the flesh before.

"He died, our brother, exalted by the gift his sacrifice brought to his people." The bearded man who was apparently the spokesman for them all paused again. It didn't seem to be an affectation for emphasis, but something integral to his speech. Maybe he was translating, or maybe his thoughts were just that slow. "And you have ruined that."

He swung whatever he'd been holding behind his back at me without much warning. But I'd been watching for something of the sort, and I surged to my feet, my weight entirely on my good leg. I caught the blade of the bronze sword on the walking stick that had been lying just under Adam's body instead of buried in the river devil because that was where I needed it to be.

It hurt. If I hadn't been so worried for Adam, who was unable to protect himself, I doubt I could have done it. Even so, I knew it was useless. There were six of them and only one battered, damaged me. But I'd made a promise in my letter to Adam, and I was determined to keep it.

The bronze sword flared with an orange light and broke. Whatever magic it had held wasn't up to dealing with Lugh's walking stick.

Then something really disconcerting happened. The walking stick buried its suddenly sharp-again end in the otterkin's throat with no help from me. The lunge it made forced me to come down hard on my bad leg. I might have blacked out a bit after that.

I opened my eyes and found myself face-to-face with the bearded otterkin, my cheek resting in the dirt and his warm blood. He was laughing at me as he died.

My ears started to work about then, and I realized that there was a battle taking place behind me. I heard Adam's baleful, softest growl, the one he uses only when he is beyond angry. The power of his rage lit my soul with its singular goal: none of the otterkin would survive this night.

He was awake, and that meant I was safe. I started to turn over, but there must have been something really wrong with my leg because the moment I tried to move it, I passed out again.

When I opened my eyes again, I was looking at a dead otter instead of a dead man. His blood was still warm, so I couldn't have been out of it for too long. There was no sound behind me, but I knew better than to try to turn over.

"Adam?" I asked. My voice was weak and had this annoying quiver in it. When no one responded, I didn't ask again. Exhaustion should have made me numb, but I hurt too much for that. I should have been triumphant, but I hurt too much for that, too.

For a bare instant, I was afraid that the otterkin had somehow hurt him. I reached for the bond between us with all of my heart--and found him nearby, changing from wolf to man. Relieved, I settled in to wait for him, absorbing his fear for me, his rage, and his love with something approaching euphoria. If I could feel all of that, I wasn't dead, and that seemed as remarkable an accomplishment as I'd ever achieved.

I MUST HAVE SLEPT FOR A LITTLE BECAUSE THE BLOOD under my cheek had cooled and there were gentle hands running over me.

"Adam," I said. "You need to get some clothes on before those police officers get down here." I'd been hearing their sirens approaching for a few minutes.

"Shh," he told me. And as if a curtain had been drawn back, I could feel his feverish need to make sure I was okay. He'd sounded so calm, so sane-- when he was none of those things.

"Please?" He needed something to help him, or he was going to kill anyone who came within a dozen feet of me. Sometimes the thought had occurred to me that Adam dressed so civilized in his silk shirts and hand-tailored suits as a shield against the wildness within him.

Besides, if the police showed up to find Adam naked, they were going to have some sort of strong reaction--and Adam needed everyone to be as calm as possible.

He hesitated.

"I'm okay," I told him. "Really I am." I tried to move, then rethought what I'd said. "Okay. I hurt, and I think my leg is broken. And maybe my hand. But I'm not going to bleed to death, and I think we'll have an easier time with the police and the FBI and whoever else is about to descend upon us if you are wearing jeans."

"I don't want to leave you here," he said. "And I'm not moving you without a more careful look."

"If you can't put jeans on and be back here in under a minute, I'd be surprised," I told him. Then I had a bright idea. "I don't want anyone but me seeing you naked," I told him, a little surprised that it was the truth. "Not when I can't defend my claim." It was stupid, and I knew it--but I also knew he'd understand.

"Damn it, Mercy," he said--and then he was running.

I found myself smiling as I heard the door of the trailer open and realized I was smiling into the face of the otterkin whose eyes were clouded with death and whose blood made the ground sticky under my face. Tomorrow, I'd have nightmares about that, maybe. But tonight, he was dead, and I wasn't. That was good enough for me.

It was a good thing the otterkin apparently turned back into otters when they died. If the police had come here and found six human bodies, we might have had a lot of trouble. The walking stick dug into my ribs, and I tugged it out from under me, regarding it soberly.

I'd figure out what I'd done to the walking stick in time. How bad could it be? The oakman had used it to kill a vampire, and it hadn't changed. Whatever the walking stick had become, it couldn't be as bad as the river devil.


Adam, dressed only in a pair of jeans, examined me carefully to make sure I hadn't damaged anything that moving would make worse. Then he picked me up and carried me over to the camp chairs, where he'd laid out one of the blankets to bundle me up in. He called his office and had them remotely open the gate and let in the cops-- who were gathered outside the gate like hornets at their nest.

He was cleaning my face, very gently, when the police came in and all sorts of official cars drove to us.

Adam did the talking, implying a lot of not-quite- true things without ever lying. Everyone got pretty tense when Adam introduced himself as the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack. But they seemed to find it perfectly acceptable to hear that a few people believed that the recent spate of deaths by the river were not the work of a human serial killer but of a real monster.

In the interest of privacy, he told them, he couldn't reveal who called him in.

One of the sheriff's men murmured, "When I first met him, he was with Jim Alvin and Calvin Seeker." From his words, I was pretty sure he was the one who'd given us a ride back to our campground when we'd found Benny, but I could only look out of one eye at this point, the other having swollen shut.

At the sound of Jim's name, the local cops all looked wise and quit asking questions. One of them murmured, "Native American medicine man," to the FBI agents, and suddenly no one asked Adam any more questions about why we were here. Apparently, no one wanted to create an incident with the Yakama Nation. The less the officials knew about magic, fae otterkin, and Coyote, the more likely they would be to attribute all the deaths to a prehistoric creature--I'd heard one of the FBI say that phrase when talking on his cell phone to someone--and go home. More important to me at this point, they would let me go home, too.

I closed my good eye, and when I opened it, Adam had a cup of hot cocoa and was making me drink it. I fussed at him for waking me up until I got the first mouthful down. It tasted really good, and it was hot.

"Where's everyone else?" I asked when I was done because it looked as though we were alone.

"Down staring at the river devil." Adam set the mug aside and kissed me gently on the forehead. "They got pretty excited when they realized it was still just lying there. They have about three minutes before I take you to the emergency room."

He was holding on to civilization by the skin of his teeth. A proper mate would be meek and subservient until he recovered.

"I don't want to go to the hospital," I whined. I didn't want to move for at least a hundred years now that I was finally warm. If I didn't move, I didn't hurt. Much.

"You don't get a choice." His voice was oh-so- calm, but I could feel the huge storm that lay behind all that control.

"I killed the nasty monster. I think I should get to say no," I told him. To my embarrassment, tears welled in my eyes. I had to blink fast to make them go away. I was done, no reserves left at all. I just couldn't bear any more tonight.

"You are in shock," he said grimly. "You need stitches in half a dozen places, and your leg is broken. Where do you think you should be going?"


He sighed, leaned forward, and rested his forehead on mine for a moment. "I'll take you home tomorrow," he promised. "Tonight, you're going to the emergency room."

THEY CUT MY OLD SWIMMING SUIT OFF ME AT THE hospital, where a tired-eyed female doctor and a pair of nurses (one of them a man) scrubbed, stitched, stapled, and otherwise abused my body. I made them leave Adam's dog tags on my neck. The doctor and both nurses flirted shamelessly with Adam even though he was now wearing a shirt and shoes with his jeans. But Adam didn't seem to notice, so that was okay. By the time the sun rose, I had a bright pink cast on my leg and orders to have it checked over by an orthopedic doctor ASAP. The tibia was certainly broken, so was my kneecap, and the X- rays also showed a suspicious-looking shadow on my ankle. I had more stitches than a Raggedy Ann doll and hands wrapped up like mummies. Not only was my right hand broken, but both hands were sliced, diced, and burned. I had two black eyes. The first was the remnant of the fight in Wal-Mart. I had no idea when the second one happened. Maybe it was when the river devil landed on me after she was dead, or before that, when she was flopping around. I didn't feel it when it happened, and I wasn't feeling it anymore because I also had the best drugs in the known universe. I was very happy and didn't care much that my leg still ached. It wasn't just the drugs that made me happy; the river devil's mark was gone.

Once I quit hurting, Adam lost the soft edge in his voice that worried me so much, and his eyes darkened until they approached their usual color. Of course, once I quit hurting, I also quit worrying about Adam losing control and killing someone he'd feel bad about later.

"Hey," I asked Adam, as he took the paperwork the nurse handed him, "is this the hospital they took Benny to?"

So Adam rolled me through the hospital in a wheelchair to go visit Benny. When we got to his room, Benny was sleeping deeply in his bed, a tired-looking woman was drowsing in a tired- looking chair, and Calvin was sitting in the wide windowsill staring out at the dawn.

One of the wheels on the chair had a squeak; it caught Calvin's attention. He turned his head, then darn near fell off the window.

"What happened to you?" he asked. Then, his expression lightening, he said fiercely, "Did you do it?"

"We are minus one monster," I said, accidentally waking the woman in the chair--and Benny, too.

"Pain meds," murmured Adam in explanation of something. I think it was the giggling. "As you can see, taking out the monster was a close-run thing."

"Tell me," said Benny.

So I did. At some point--near where I was trying to climb up the river devil, I think--Adam sat on the floor next to the chair and leaned his forehead against my thigh. There was another chair in the room, so I wasn't quite sure why he was sitting on the floor. The drugs had fuzzed our bond, so it took me a moment to feel the sick fear that racked him.

"Walking stick?" asked Calvin, distracting me from Adam's distress. I blinked at him. I couldn't remember if the walking stick was supposed to be a secret or not.

"It's an old fae artifact that attached itself to her while she was risking her neck to save a fae she knows," Adam muttered, and I could tell he wasn't happy about remembering me trying to save Zee, either.

"He was a friend," I reminded him.

"She does stuff like this all the time?" asked Calvin, looking at Adam with respect.

Adam lifted his head, and his eyes were yellow again--but his voice was only a little rough. "To be fair, it's usually not her fault. She doesn't start things."

"But it looks like she finishes them," said the woman holding Benny's hand. I was going to jump out on a long limb and assume that she was his wife. I must have said that aloud because she nodded. "Yes. I am. I have to thank you and your husband for saving Benny."

"He saved himself," I said in surprise. "Didn't someone tell you the story? He was smart."

"And lucky," said Benny. "If you hadn't found me when you did, I'd have died."

I leaned forward. "Did they tell you what your sister said to me?"

"Jim did," said Calvin.

"Did she want me to put flowers from her to Mom on the grave, or from me to Fai . . . to my sister?" Benny's voice was a little fuzzy. Maybe they were giving him painkillers, too.

"I don't know," I told him. "Maybe you should do both."

"Would you finish the story?" Calvin asked, a little plaintively. "You'd just dropped the last knife and stabbed the river devil with a fae artifact that turned into a spear."

"Right." So I told them how its heart had turned to ice, and the walking stick burned my hand. "And then I swam back to shore."

"With a broken leg?" asked Adam.

"Pretty neat trick, huh," I said smugly.

"Really good drugs." Calvin's voice was dry.

Adam's face was hidden against my leg again. This time he had one hand wrapped around my good ankle. The other hand dug into the tile on the floor. The tile cracked with a pop.

"You're going to cut yourself," I chided him.

He lifted his head. "You are going to be the death of me."

I sucked in my breath. The sudden surge of fear I felt at that thought broke through the happy glaze I'd been enjoying. "Don't say that. Adam, don't let me do that."

"Shh," he said. "I'm sorry. Don't cry. It's all right." He rose to kneel beside me, wiping my cheeks with his thumbs. "Werewolves are tough, Mercy. I'm not the one who almost died tonight." He sucked in a breath. "Don't you do that ever again."

"I didn't do it on purpose," I wailed miserably. "I didn't want to almost die."

"It's the drugs," said Benny wisely. "They make me say things wrong, too."

"So what happened to the--what did you call them?--otterkin?" asked Calvin.

Since I'd already told them about the walking stick, I told them about what it had done to the otterkin and what the otterkin had said about it.

"You can ask Zee what he thinks." Adam had regained enough control that his eyes were his usual chocolate brown. He regarded me a moment, and added, "Later, when you are not quite so happy. He might not understand about the good drugs."

"He might not understand about me killing one of the last six otterkin. There were supposed to be seven, but I think the river devil ate one of them when she woke up." I yawned. "I don't think killing them was quite what Uncle Mike had in mind when he told us to check up on them."

"I don't know," said Adam. "Uncle Mike can be pretty oblique when he wants to."

"The Gray Lords might come after me." I frowned at Adam. "That might come back to bite the pack. The Gray Lords aren't always very precise about where they aim their wrath." "If the wrath of the Gray Lords lands on the pack, I'm happy to claim the credit for it. You killed one of them, and I killed the rest." Fierce satisfaction sizzled in his voice.

I touched the curve of his jaw with my broken hand. "Good. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the body count that's going to be attributed to the monster is actually theirs. It sounded like they'd been eating people anyway." She had been feeding them, the otterkin had told me. And they had been feeding her. A lot of the fae had at one time or another eaten human flesh. I suspected that the otterkin were the people-eating kind of fae. "They were bound not to hurt anyone in the swimming area of that campground--and they moved away from there."

"Who is Uncle Mike, and what are the Gray Lords?" asked Calvin.

"You might as well tell him," I told Adam. "He's a medicine man and ought to know things like that."

ADAM DROVE US BACK TO THE CAMPGROUND. ONCE there, he wrapped me in a blanket in the passenger seat of the truck, which he'd left running with the air-conditioning on. The air- conditioning was for me, and I was pretty sure the blanket was for him--the shield that he wished he could put around me, Jesse, and the pack, so we wouldn't come to harm.

"We could wait until tomorrow to leave," I told him. "You look tired. I'm not as bad as I look."

He kissed me. "Mercy," he said, "you are every bit as bad off as you look. I was there when they did the repair work. The drugs they gave you in the hospital are going to wear off before long, and the replacements aren't nearly as good. I want you home when that happens. This campground is crawling with reporters and all sorts of official personnel who want to study the Columbia River Monster. I really don't want to spend a night here. But most importantly"--he made a sound that was half a sigh and half a laugh, then whispered in my ear--"I'm afraid of what will happen if we stay one more day on our honeymoon. We'll give it six months, and I'll take you somewhere--San Diego, New York--hell, even Paris, if that's where you want to go. But I need to get you home today."

He shut the door and went out to pack up our campsite. I dozed a little before the sound of a truck woke me up. There had been lots of cars and trucks driving in and out--Adam hadn't bothered to shut the gate after we'd left for the hospital. But the rumble of this engine was familiar. I had to blink several times to clear my vision and confirm it was in fact Jim Alvin's truck. He stopped several times along the way to our campsite, talking to various officials. He had a smile on his face, so I expect they were people he knew.

He parked his truck, then stopped to talk to Adam for a while, too. Finally, he came to the truck I was in and opened my door.

He took a good look and whistled through his teeth. "Calvin told me he thought you'd done it by the skin of your teeth--and I think that might be the only skin you have left."

"Have you seen Coyote?" I asked.

The smile in his eyes died. "No. But you know that he'll either show up again or else he's off in the other camp playing with his friends. Coyote always comes out all right in the end."

"Other camp?"

"With the people who have gone before him," he said.

"What about Gordon Seeker?"

"It will work out all right in the end, Mercy." He hit the side of the doorframe lightly with a knuckle. "I wanted to thank you for doing what I couldn't."

I blinked at him a bit, sorting through my muddled thoughts until I found the one I wanted. "It took us all."

"Yes," he agreed. "But I still have two good legs and most of my skin."

"'Sall right," I assured him earnestly. "I'm not feeling any pain right now."

He looked at me intently, then smiled. "What tribe are you from, Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman?"

"Blackfeet," I told him, the answer coming automatically. "Who told you about the Athena part?"

He smiled mysteriously. "Some things are better kept secret. Blackfeet, eh? Are you sure it's not Blackfoot?"

I frowned at him.

"I think you are taking something precious home with you from this trip," he told me. "Remember who you are. Good dreams, Mercy. I'll call you if I see Gordon or Coyote if you will do the same."

"All right." I closed my eyes because they wouldn't stay open any longer. "If your car doesn't work, bring it on by."

He laughed and shut the door.

ADAM WAS RIGHT ABOUT THE DRUGS: BOTH THAT THEY would wear off and that the replacements in the amber plastic bottles wouldn't do as good a job.

"Next time I go out to kill monsters," I told him as we came into town, "you should do a better job of stopping me."

He took my bandaged hand and kissed it. "I promised you that I wouldn't do that. Next time, pick a monster who doesn't live in a river or ocean, and I'll be more help."

"Okay." I paused and thought about it. "I don't want a next time."

He sighed. "Me, either."

If I could have moved without moaning, I'd have leaned against him. I settled for leaving my hand on his thigh where he'd put it.

"But if there is," I told him, "and evidence suggests that there will be--I'd rather fight monsters with you than with anyone else I can think of."

"I have a confession to make," he told me. "I wanted to wait until you were a little closer to your usual fighting weight, but I don't think it will work."

"You found a cute waitress, and now you want a porce," I said.

He laughed. "No. But I'll look for one at the next available opportunity."

"Cool. I found a handsome nurse, but I think he liked you better than he liked me." "Seriously," he said. "I did something I shouldn't have."

I was still feeling a little muddled, so I'm not sure if my sudden insight came from our mating bond or from the fact that he sounded a little too much like my mother did when she told my little sister that she'd found her diary and read it. Since I'd told Nan that she shouldn't write anything down she didn't want someone to read, I'd been surprised by how upset my mother was. Turned out that Nan figured that if someone was going to sneak and read her diary, they deserved what they got. It took her about ten minutes to convince Mom she wasn't dealing drugs to pay for her abortion.

"You read the letters," I said, doing my best to sound offended.

"I read the letter you wrote to me."

I yawned, and it sort of ruined my pretense of indignation. I patted whatever part of him I could reach. "That's okay," I told him. "It had your name on it."

We drove for a while more before he spoke again. "I love you, too."

I smiled at him without opening my eyes. "I know you do."

I dozed a little, and, before I knew it, we'd pulled into Adam's driveway. Someone would have to back the thing out, but it wouldn't be me, so I decided not to worry about it.

The screen door opened, and Jesse bubbled out.

"Dad. Hey, Dad. Why're you home early? Someone from your office came and left a big package that says it's a wheelchair in the garage. Is that what it is? Why did we get a wheelchair?"

I opened my door and contemplated the difficulties of making it down to the ground while Adam hugged Jesse. If we'd been in my Rabbit, I could have gotten out on my own, because my Rabbit doesn't have a three-and-a-half-foot drop to the ground. Not that it would have done me much good, though. I wasn't going anywhere on my own anyway.

Jesse looked up, and her jaw dropped. "Dad," she said in a horrified voice, "what did you do to Mercy?"

UNCLE MIKE WAS NOT HAPPY WHEN I CALLED HIM THE next morning and told him we killed all the otterkin. He did listen when I told him what they had done, though. I gave him an inventory of the damage to my person (I'd quit taking anything but over-the-counter painkillers and was feeling whiny).

"How many stitches?" he asked when I was through.

"One hundred and forty-two," I told him. "And four staples. And all of them itch."

It wasn't so bad when I had a distraction. Since I couldn't do anything, that meant talking to people. I was home alone right now--which was why I'd decided to call Uncle Mike and fill him in.

"And do you know, when you have a broken hand and a giant cut under your arm, crutches don't work, and neither does a wheelchair unless you have a minion to wheel you around. My good hand is burnt, so I can't even turn circles."

"I think I'll pitch it to the Gray Lords as suicide by werewolf," he said after a long moment of silence. "Anyone who hurts you in front of Adam is too stupid to live anyway."

"Adam only killed five of them. I killed the other one." I paused. "Okay, not quite. I was holding the walking stick when it killed him."

There was a long pause. "Oh?"

I told him about using the walking stick to kill the river devil, what the otterkin had told me afterward, and how the walking stick had killed him.

"You quenched Lugh's walking stick in the blood of an ancient Native American monster?"

"I screwed up?" He sighed. "What else was there to be doing? If you hadn't used it, you'd be dead--and there would be a monster loose eating people. But there's no denying that it's not a good thing. Violence begets violence--especially when there's magic involved."

"What should I do with it?"

"What can you do? Try not to kill anyone else with it."

"Can I give it to you?" It wasn't that I was afraid of it--I didn't even know what was wrong with it. It was that I had failed to keep it safe. It should go to someone who would take better care of it.

"We tried that before, remember?" Uncle Mike said. "It didn't work."

"The oakman used it to kill a vampire. Why didn't that do anything to it?"

"I don't know," Uncle Mike said. "But if I were to guess, it would be because it wasn't the oakman's walking stick--it was yours. Intent and ownership are pretty powerful magic."

"Oh." I remembered the last thing I needed to talk to him about. "About your trailer. Do you have a favorite body shop? If not, I know a few people." SIX DAYS LATER I WAS CHANNEL SURFING IN THE BASEMENT TV room when I heard someone set foot on the top of the stairs.

"Go away," I said.

I was tired of everyone, which was ungracious of me. But I don't like being dependent--it makes me cranky. I needed someone to carry me upstairs and downstairs. I needed someone to help me outside and inside. I even needed someone to help me into the bathroom because none of the bathroom doors were big enough for a wheelchair. It hadn't been so bad when Adam was here, but he'd had to leave two days ago and tend to some disaster in Texas. He wouldn't have gone, except that it had something to do with some hush-hush government installation, and he was the only one in the company with high enough clearance to deal with it.

Today was particularly grim as I'd gone to a doctor's appointment where I'd hoped to get a walking cast--and instead had been told I had to stay off the leg entirely for at least two weeks. Warren had carried me and my wheelchair down the stairs and then proceeded to hover. I finally asked him to leave me alone in a manner that I'd have to apologize for when I was through feeling sorry for myself--and when Jesse got home from her date, because I'd left my cell phone in my coat, which was upstairs in the kitchen. The only phone in the basement was down three stairs. To top it off, my leg had objected to all the abuse and now wouldn't quit throbbing. The acetaminophen wasn't cutting it. So I was sitting in front of the TV with my eyes leaking, and I didn't want any witnesses.

The feet on the stairs just kept coming. I was supposed to be alone in the house, but Adam's house generally had pack members showing up at all hours anyway.

"I said--"

"Go away," said Stefan. "I heard you."

He didn't increase his speed, which was kind of him because it let me wipe my eyes before he could see me.

"I'd turn around," I said with some bitterness, "but my doctor tells me that I've been damaging my hands, and I'll have scarring if I keep it up. So I can't even make the damned thing go in circles anymore."

Stefan stepped around in front of me and turned off the TV so the room was shrouded in darkness. He crouched so he was eye to eye with me.

"Warren called me as soon as the sun set," he said, brushing my hair back from my face with his thumbs. "He said--and I quote--`It's time to pay up, Stefan. We've been trying, but we're all out of options.'" I raised my chin. "I'm fine. You can tell Warren they can all have the rest of the week off. They don't have to stick around and cater to me. I'll be fine." I'd figure out a way to get me and my bent leg cast in and out of the bathroom myself. Somehow.

"Mercy," he said gently. "It's not that they don't want to help--they can't. You've told them all to leave you alone. With Adam gone, you're the highest power in the pack, and they can't gainsay you. Warren told me that they were down to leaving you with pack members he couldn't be happy about."

That had never occurred to me. And explained why Auriele and Darryl hadn't been back, even after I'd sent them an e-mail apologizing for yelling at them. I know e-mail apologies are lame, but it was the only way I could be sure not to grump at them some more.

"You need to tell them they can come back to the house and talk to you--and help you do whatever you need. Just as you would help them if they needed it. Warren asked me to explain that they certainly understand the need to snap and snarl a bit."

Chagrined at my stupidity, I nodded.

"But not tonight," he said. "Tonight you have me. Would you like to go for a stroll? It's still pretty warm out. I brought over some games if you'd rather. I believe you are partial to Battleship."

I sighed in resignation. "I have to go to the bathroom."

He hauled me in and out without embarrassment--on his part anyway. Then he took me for a walk down by the river. He carried me because the ground was too rough for a wheelchair. It could have been uncomfortable, but he paid no attention to the forced intimacy, so I didn't have to, either. I'd been trying to be as little trouble as possible, so the only time I'd been outside since we'd gotten back from Maryhill was to go to doctor's appointments.

"You look better," I told him. It was true; he was still on the lean side, but he no longer looked like a stiff wind would carry him away.

"I took a trip to Portland last week and brought back a couple of people," he said, sounding sad. Vampires didn't hunt for their sheep, the people they would keep in their menageries, in their own territories. "I tried to find people I thought would blend in with the rest, but we're still having territorial negotiations. I need a few more, but I'll wait until things settle down. Warren said that he and Ben were happy to continue to be food until I didn't need them anymore."

I patted his shoulder. "I hate being dependent, too. It sucks."

He gave a rueful laugh. "We do seem to be in the same boat, no? I suppose we must work on being gracious and grateful until we can do for ourselves. Someday the wheel of fate will put us in a position to be of use to them, and we will remember how much easier it is to give help than it is to accept it. Now, why don't you tell me of your adventures? I've heard quite a bit from Warren, of course, but I prefer to get the story from the source whenever possible."

So he walked and I talked until I was hoarse and cold. Then we went inside and played Battleship.

"B-7," I SAID.

"Miss." He was gloating because he was working his way down my last and biggest ship, and I was still looking for his two-peg patrol boat. "C-2."

"Hit and you know it," I grumped.

He looked at me, then his eyes focused over my shoulder.

"D-4," said Coyote.

Stefan came to his feet, and said, "Who are you?" at about the same time I turned my chair around regardless of scarring my hands up, and said, "Am I glad to see you. We were worried." "Of course you were," Coyote told me. He stared at me a moment. "Mercy, what did you do to yourself?"

"River Devil and otterkin," I said.

His thumb brushed under my eye, and he held it up. "You are leaking, Mercy. Maybe you need a few more stitches."

I laughed and wiped my face. "All my stitches come out in four more days. I thought you were dead."

"I was," he said. "That's what the plan was. Don't you remember? Why do you have a vampire in your basement?" He narrowed his gaze at Stefan, and with ill-concealed hostility said, "Vampires kill walkers."

"Mercy," said Stefan, "is this Coyote?"

"Yep," I agreed. "Stefan, meet Coyote. Coyote, meet Stefan Uccello. He's a friend of mine."

Coyote's gaze grew noticeably colder. "I remember you."

Stefan smiled at me. "I have not battled with any walkers for a hundred years or more. But I think that it would be good for me to take my leave until your guest is finished. You have your cell phone?" I held it up; he'd retrieved it when we came in from our walk. "Call me when he leaves. I promised Warren I wouldn't leave you alone. I will tell him that you said he could come back tomorrow." "Thank you," I said, meaning it.

He kissed my cheek, ignoring Coyote's throaty growl. Then he disappeared.

Coyote straightened, staring at the place where the vampire had been. "I've never seen one of the blood drinkers do something like that before."

"Stefan is special," I agreed. "I'm so glad you're back. How did the others fare, do you know?"

Coyote took Stefan's chair and sat down with a groan. "Thunderbird--Gordon Seeker--was the only one who beat me back. Surprised both of us. There aren't any more Thunderbird walkers, and we were certain that he would never return with no one to anchor him. Just goes to show you that no matter how old you are, life can still surprise you. Do you have anything to eat? It's been a few days."

"In the fridge," I told him. "Help yourself."

He did. He carried me and my wheelchair up to the kitchen and made himself a huge sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and sat down with me. I told him about killing the river devil and the otterkin. I also told him about how worried I'd gotten about the walking stick.

It hadn't done anything since killing the otterkin, but there was an eagerness, a shadow of violence, that seemed to lurk around it. I had noticed that when I was at my most prickly, the walking stick was usually somewhere nearby. Maybe it was my imagination--I wouldn't have told Adam, for instance, without better evidence. But Coyote ran more on instinct than logic, so I thought he'd understand. I think I hoped he'd have some sort of suggestion for me, but he just listened and nodded while he ate. I even told him about coping with a broken hand and a broken leg while a pack of werewolves tried to take care of me despite myself, and had him laughing milk out his nose. My leg still hurt, my stitches still itched, and Adam was still all the way in Texas, but somehow I felt better anyway.

Coyote told me a few stories about himself. He used the rude versions, too. Potty humor shouldn't be funny to anyone over the age of twelve--and then only to the male half of the species. But somehow it was different when Coyote told it, both sly and innocent at the same time.

He leaned forward and touched my nose. "You're tired. I'd better get going."

"Stop in again," I invited him.

Coyote looked around the kitchen, then he looked at me. "You know, I think I will." He got up and, behind my back, said, "That is very beautiful."

I turned as far as I could in my wheelchair and saw that he'd picked up the walking stick, which must have been lurking around. He gave it a Charlie Chaplin swing.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything more gracefully etched or cleverly carved," he said. Then he looked at me and smiled, waiting for me to understand.

"Would you," I said carefully, remembering what Charles had taught me about guests and things that they admired, "care to accept it? It has delighted me for many days, as have you--which makes it a fitting gift for such an honored and welcomed guest."

He smiled at me as if I had been exceptionally clever. "But it's gotten a bit dangerous recently, yes? We shall have marvelous adventures, this walking stick and I."

I'd given it back to the fae quite often when it first came to me--and it had always returned. But somehow, I thought that it would stay with Coyote.

"Take care of yourself," I told him. "And tell your sisters `hi' from me."

"I'll do that," he promised, opening the back door. He stopped in the doorway and turned back to me.

"You tell your mate that I expect him to take care of you," he growled.

"I will." I smiled a little. "Have fun."

"Oh, I will," said Coyote. He shut the door, but I heard the last bit anyway. "I always do." MERCY'S LETTER TO ADAM

Dearest Adam,

If you are reading this, I guess it means I didn't make it out this time. Damn. I was really worried about this one, and if there had been any way out of it, I'd have found it.

Words aren't my best thing, not when it's time to tell you how I feel--but you know that. I'm much better with actions than explaining myself. I think it's because I don't think in words about you. How can I reduce what I feel for you to mere letters on a page? "I love you" doesn't seem big enough somehow, and everything else I tried (you can go through that little garbage can under the sink if you want to see the drafts of this letter) sounds like really bad poetry, which is even worse, so I'll just stick to the simple words. I love you, Adam.

I want you to know that I fought to get back to you. I didn't take the easy way out. I didn't give up. I fought this death because I had you waiting for me on the shore. If it had been possible to drag this puny mortal flesh back to you, I would have done it, if I had to crawl to do so. I would have walked through Hell to get back to you, and only failed because of the weakness of my body, not of my heart.

Don't push Jesse away. She needs you more than she's willing to admit. I was going to tell you to go hunt down a woman who will love you, but I find that I'm not a big enough person to do that. Still, don't feel guilty when you do, okay? And don't leave her waiting for years (like you did me) because you think you are too old, too Alpha, too whatever. Just make sure she treasures you properly.

Love you, Mercy Titles by Patricia Briggs


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