River Marked Chapter 5

THE ONLY BRUSH OR TREES IN THIS PART OF THE gorge that weren't cultivated--very little of the ground on either side of the river was cultivated--were right on the river. For the most part our footing was cheatgrass-covered basalt, not horrible hiking if I'd had shoes.

It would have been better if I could have shifted into coyote, but I didn't know these men--and I don't make it a habit of telling everyone what I am. Too many bad things happened to people who admitted too openly what they were without a powerful group behind them--and sometimes even with a powerful group behind them. I'd survived a long time by keeping my head down and blending in; I wasn't going to change that just to make my bare feet feel better.

The Owens brothers and Calvin took turns carrying Benny. Jim led the way and carried a couple of flares to flag down the ambulance with. We all, except for whoever was carrying Benny, carried flashlights, which did a fair bit to destroy my night vision. I brought up the rear--though they had all suggested I stay down by the river.

I could have done that, but what if they ran into Adam? Under normal circumstances, they'd be perfectly safe. But Adam had had to make two fast changes tonight and experienced a number of stressors. He'd been forced to leave me naked and vulnerable. Benny had been so afraid--in addition to all the blood and pain.

Adam was not human and hadn't been for a long time. His control was very good--but this was not a good night for him to be meeting up with strangers carrying a bleeding, hurt man.

So I insisted on going with them.

We might have been a half mile from the road, but that half mile was all up the side of a very steep hill that was broken up with basalt cliffs that ranged from two feet to twenty or thirty feet high. The first kind we scrambled over; the second we worked our way around.

We'd made it about halfway by my hazy reckoning when Adam caught up to us. He was human and clothed, but his eyes were yellow bright from the adrenaline and the pain of his rushed changes.

He handed me a backpack, and said, "Clothes, shoes, and first aid." His voice was a low, growling sound, and his hand shook. "Thank you," I said. "I'm safe with them." I found that I believed that now, and it was a relief. "Can you get Benny up to the road to wait for the ambulance?" It would be dangerous, all that blood. But the men were tiring, and tired people make missteps.

Adam didn't look directly at any of the strangers --so they wouldn't have the opportunity to meet his eyes. That was good and bad. It told me he was still in control--but he didn't trust himself to stay that way.

He took Benny off Hank's back without a word, cradling the wounded man like a baby--which kept Benny's foot up higher though it was a much more difficult way to carry an unconscious person than the fireman's carry the Owens brothers had been using.

Hank didn't fight Adam--just held very still, as though he sensed how much danger he was in. Adam lifted his head once, then took a quick look at all the men before sprinting off for the road at a dead run.

"Who the hell was that?" asked Calvin.

He had to have had a fair idea of who it was-- after all, Adam had brought clothes for me. What he meant, I thought, was how did Adam run up the side of the canyon carrying Benny at a speed that would have done credit to an Olympic sprinter. "That was my husband," I said nonchalantly to the adrenaline-filled air as I opened the backpack and pulled out my jeans. "He's a werewolf--and Hank was smart enough not to make an issue of handing Benny off to him."

Adam's status was not a secret, though there were still a lot of werewolves who hid what they were. Adam was almost a celebrity in the Tri- Cities, though we were hoping the fascination with him would die down. It did no harm for Calvin and the others to know what he was--and maybe it would give them a little caution when we caught up to him.

Putting on my jeans was slow work because I was still a little damp, but the warmth felt wonderful. He'd packed a sweatshirt that smelled like Adam, came down to my knees, and was warmer than anything I'd brought. I dusted off my sore and bleeding feet and stuffed them into a pair of socks, then into my tennis shoes. Heaven.

I looked up to see all four men watching me.

"Don't meet his eyes if you can help it--he's had a rough day," I told them. Then, with the blanket in one hand, I took off after Adam, leaving the others to follow however they would. They'd been swift and sure in the face of their friend's trouble. They'd recover from the werewolf pretty fast.

Adam was waiting for us at the highway's shoulder when I found him. He'd set the injured man down a few yards away, where there was a big rock he'd used to keep Benny's leg elevated.

"Hey." I spread the blanket over Benny and tucked it in around him. "How are you doing, Adam?"

"Not good," he admitted without looking at me. "I need someone to kill." I think he was trying to be funny, but it came out seriously.

I could hear the others approaching. My feet were battered, shoes or no shoes, and my calf ached where the water plant had been pulled off so abruptly. I hadn't made the best time up to the highway and, without Benny slowing them down, evidently they had been able to speed up a lot. I stood up and walked to Adam.

"No one here needs killing," I told him with quiet urgency. "These men were out looking for Benny here. They are the good guys, so you can't kill them."

Adam still wasn't meeting my eyes, but he laughed, and it sounded genuinely amused. "Shouldn't."

"Shouldn't what?"

"Shouldn't kill them, Mercy. Not can't."

I put my forehead against his shoulder. "It's the same thing for you," I told him confidently.

He took a deep breath and turned around to meet the four men who were approaching us a little warily--because they weren't stupid. "Hello," he said, his voice still growly and about a half octave lower than usual. "I'm Adam Hauptman. Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack."

"Jim Alvin," said Jim, stepping forward. I'd told them not to meet his eyes, but he did better than that. Maybe it was luck, maybe he knew something of werewolves or just wild animals, but he turned one shoulder forward and tipped his head sideways and down submissively even as he reached out a hand. "Of the Yakama Nation. Thank you for the help. Benny's a good man." I noticed that Adam didn't get the elaboration of tribal bloodlines that I had.

"Do you know what happened to him?" asked Adam, after giving Jim's hand a brief shake. His eyes were wolf-bright, ominous yellow in the illumination of their flashlights.

"No idea at all," Jim said.

Fred Owens stepped up. His head was lowered, too, but he was looking up into Adam's face.

"I've seen all kinds of kills. A bear might bite off half a man's foot the way Benny's was. A bear or some other big carnivore."

It was a challenge, of a sort, and I held my breath.

The tension dropped from Adam's shoulders, and he suddenly grinned. "You think I bit off his foot? Hell, Marine, I just got married. I have more important things to do." "Barracuda," said Hank into the sudden silence. "It looks like a barracuda ... or maybe a tiger shark. They have these odd teeth that they saw back and forth."

"The Columbia," said Jim slowly, "is freshwater."

"Tiger sharks have been found up fresh waterways," Hank persisted.

"Not up past dams," said Fred. "How did you know I was a marine?"

Adam's eyes were now honey brown, not quite his usual bitter chocolate, but safer than before. "Easier than spotting a cop," said Adam. "Might as well have it tattooed across your forehead." He paused for effect, then said, "It helps that you're still wearing your dog tags."

"You're not a marine."

Adam shook his head. "Army ranger. I never could swim--and since I became a werewolf, I'm all but useless in the water."

"Could his foot have gotten caught by one of those old jaw traps?" asked Calvin, speaking up for the first time. "It looked sort of like that to me."

"I haven't seen one of those things being used since I was a kid," Jim said. "And it was illegal then. But he's right. It could do that sort of damage."

"A bear trap wouldn't catch two people," Hank said. Adam might have won over Fred with his military fellowship, but the other Owens brother was still suspicious. "Where is Faith?"

"He was afraid of something." I frowned at the unconscious man. "Really afraid. But it wasn't Adam."

Fred nodded abruptly at his brother. "No ranger would be dumb enough to leave a witness alive."

Apparently, he felt that left Adam in the clear.

Hank looked less certain and rubbed a hand along his ribs as if they hurt. Maybe he had strained something carrying Benny up the hill, or maybe it was a reflex thing.

About that time, the ambulance, followed by a sheriff's car, pulled up. With practiced speed, the EMT people slipped Benny onto a gurney, and the ambulance roared off to the nearest hospital. The officer took down names and statements. He seemed to know the other men, and, from their body language, they all got along pretty well. When Fred told him Adam was a werewolf, the officer tensed up and ran his flashlight over us.

His gaze brushed by me, then stopped. "You're bleeding," he told me. He aimed his flashlight at my leg--and damned if he wasn't right.

I pulled up my pant leg. It had been so cold, and my feet had taken such a battering, I hadn't really been paying attention. It hurt, but I hadn't connected that to actual damage. And there was quite a lot, really. Something had ripped the skin off my calf and taken some meat with it. It looked like a really nasty rope burn.

"I got caught up in some weeds wading out to Benny's boat," I said. "Benny hit the motor while I was holding on to the boat and pulled me loose."

"That doesn't look like something a weed would do," Fred told me, shining his flashlight on it. "Some of those underwater plants can be sharp and slice you up some, but that looks more like you pulled free of a hemp rope."

"All sorts of garbage in that river," said the deputy. "Lucky you didn't get caught up in deeper water. Ambulance is in use, but I could run you to the hospital."

"No," I said. "It's nasty, but I'm up-to-date on my shots. Mostly it just needs cleaning and bandaging, and we have the stuff to do that."

Adam had knelt to get a good look. I heard him take a deep breath, then move closer. After a minute, he shook his head and stood up. "Thought I smelled something odd, but there's no telling what a rope might gather sitting in the river."

The deputy swallowed, having been reminded what Adam was. "You four can take your boat back? Okay. Leave Benny's boat there, and we'll get people to check it out and see what that tells us. Mostly we'll just have to wait until Benny can tell us what happened to Faith and his foot. At this point, I expect it's some sort of accident."

"I saw a man attacked by a barracuda once," said Adam. He looked at Hank. "I agree it looked a lot like your Benny's foot." He glanced at Calvin. "Not a metal trap. Those old jaw traps are built to dig in and hold the animal, not go all the way through the bone. A bear trap might crush a foot off, and there was some crushing on Benny's foot --but mostly it was sliced. Something with sharp teeth went after him."

"No barracuda in the Columbia," said Fred. But he didn't sound like he was arguing. "No sharks, either, for that matter. It looks to me like something a piece of farm machinery might do. But I've never run into a baler or harvester in the river."

My leg, once I'd noticed it, began to itch. It looked as though it ought to hurt more than it did, but right now, it itched. Maybe I'd gotten into some nettles or something while I was running around bare-legged.

Adam glanced at me. "I need to get Mercy to camp."

The deputy said, "You guys go get your boat and go home. Mr. Hauptman, I can take you and your wife back to your camp so you can take care of her."

He was scared of Adam. When we got in the car, the scent of his fear filled the air. I don't think a human would have noticed, though, and a little bit of fear wouldn't set Adam off.

Adam had a lot of experience dealing with scared people. By the time we reached the campground, the deputy was deep in a discussion about what the impact of a second campground in the Maryhill area would be.

"What we really need here is a good restaurant or two." The deputy's voice carried his conviction. "The museum has a nice deli, and there are a couple of places in Biggs, but they are always overflowing with highway traffic. You have to drive all the way to Goldendale, The Dalles, or Hood River for really good food. Those are too hard to find for the tourist business pulled in by the museum or Stonehenge. I figure we lose a lot of business because we don't have enough places to eat."

He pulled up to the gates and let us out. "I'd appreciate it if you folks stayed around here for a few days in case we need to ask you anything else."

"We were planning to," said Adam. "But if you need us, you have my cell."

He drove off, and I told Adam, "You'd better not let Bran see how diplomatic and reassuring you can be when you want. He'll make you go around the country and make speeches about how werewolves are gentle and not scary at all, too." Adam smiled and picked me up. "Shh," he said.

I didn't argue. The itching hadn't gone away, but the pain had increased just on the short ride to the camp. Besides, carrying me wasn't much of an effort for a werewolf.

"Hey," I said. "You've been playing the hero pack mule all day. First Robert, then Benny, and now me."

He set me down in front of the trailer and opened the door for me. When I sat down on the leather sofa, he turned on the interior lights and rolled my pant leg up to my knee. In the bright light of the trailer, it looked a lot worse than it had. Yellow stuff and blood crusted the cut, which was about an inch wide and deeper than I'd thought. The first hint of bruising was beginning to show up above and below the cut, and the edges had puffed up.

Adam put his nose down to my leg and sniffed again. He took a fluffy towel out of a cupboard and put that over his leg. Then he propped my calf on his thigh and poured liquid fire over the cut. I know some people claim that hydrogen peroxide doesn't hurt. Goody for them. I hate the stuff.

I jumped when the hydrogen peroxide hit and shrank down into the couch as it continued to bubble ferociously. Adam used the damp towel to clean my leg, then he sniffed again.

"That was no rope," he growled. "There was something caustic or poisonous on whatever grabbed you--I can smell it."

"Is that why it itches?" I asked.

"Probably." He handed me a couple of pills from a bottle in the kit.

"What is this?"

"Antihistamine," he said. "In case the swelling is an allergic reaction."

"If I take these, I'll be asleep in three minutes." I took them anyway. The need to dig my fingers into that cut and scratch was almost unbearable as soon as the burn of the hydrogen peroxide had worn off.

"We need to call Uncle Mike," I said in a small voice. I didn't want to start an argument again.

He must have heard it in my voice because he patted my knee. "I'll call as soon as I'm through here, but I doubt that Uncle Mike sent us here for this."

"Just to be clear," I said. "I didn't misunderstand you, right? You and the Owenses are thinking that there is some kind of fish that ate Benny's foot."

"Too soon to make assumptions," said Adam. "Maybe they stopped onshore for lunch and met a bear."

"Are there even bear around here?"

"Probably not here," Adam acknowledged. "But up where we were hiking there are. No telling how far Benny got his boat from the initial attack."

"So what was it that grabbed my leg?" I asked.

"That is something that Uncle Mike might know," Adam said. "How much of those otters did you see?"

I blinked, my brain already starting to haze from the antihistamine. Otters.

I sat up a little straighter. "Those weren't river otters." Their heads were a little differently shaped. I hadn't paid much attention to that at the time.

Adam nodded. "I saw one when I got back to the boat. What do you bet that they're a European species? Werewolves aren't the only shapeshifters in Europe."

"I've heard of selkies and kelpies," I said. "But not shapeshifting otters."

"Nor have I," said Adam, frowning at my calf. "But selkies interacted with people a lot. Kelpies are rarer, I'm told, but terrifying. You can see why there would be stories about them. Otters just aren't scary."

So speaks the man who hadn't been naked in the river with them. They may be small, but they are agile and mean.

There was a knock on the door, and Adam and I both stared at it in shock. The gate by the highway was shut, and it wasn't so far from the trailer that we wouldn't have heard someone stopping there. He glanced at me, and I shook my head--I hadn't heard anyone coming, either. Adam reached into his luggage, quietly pulled out a handgun, and tucked it into the back of his jeans, tugging his shirt down over it.

The quiet knock came again.

"Who is it?" asked Adam.

"I am Gordon Seeker, Calvin's grandfather, Mr. Hauptman. He said that your wife got hurt helping Benny, who is a young friend of mine."

Adam opened the door warily. He stepped back, and I saw the man at the door for the first time. His voice hadn't sounded old, but I didn't think I'd ever seen anyone older outside a rest home.

Sharp brown eyes peered at me out of a face that looked as though it had been left out in the sun to dry too long. Skin like beef jerky and white hair caught back in a smooth French braid down his back. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and small gold studs in his ears. His back was bent, and his hands were curled up from arthritis, his fingers bent and knuckles enlarged. But his movements were surprisingly easy as he climbed into the trailer without invitation.

He wore jeans and a plain red T-shirt under a Redskins jacket. I'm not sure if he was a football fan, if he wore it as a statement, or if it was just something to keep out the cool night air.

Over his shoulder he carried one of those leather bags that should look like a purse but doesn't. On his feet were the most lurid pair of cowboy boots I've ever seen--and that is saying something because I come from cowboy country, and cowboys wear some really gaudy stuff. The boots were bright lipstick red, each with a United States flag beaded in red, white, and blue across the top.

He smelled of fresh air and tobacco. But his tobacco hadn't come out of a cigarette. A pipe maybe--something without all the additives that make cigarettes smell so bad. It reminded me of my father's ghost.

"He told me about you, Mr. Hauptman," said Calvin's grandfather. "Been a long time since I saw a werewolf. Not a lot of them in this part of the country. And this must be your wife, Mercedes--" Then he looked at me and drew in a breath.

"You," he said. "I wasn't expecting you. Calvin said you were Blackfeet married to an Anglo werewolf. I should have asked myself how many Blackfeet women would associate with a werewolf, shouldn't I? I had wondered what happened to you." He narrowed his eyes. "You don't look like Old Coyote. Oh, I can see him some in your eyes and in your coloring, but you look more Anglo than I'd expected."

He had known my father.

Suddenly, antihistamine or no antihistamine, I wasn't at all sleepy. But there was a disconnect between my tongue and the questions that were galloping through my head. I looked at Adam. His eyes were half-lidded, and his expression was neutral. His body language said, "Isn't he interesting? Let's see what he does."

The old man looked down at my leg and hissed. "That looks bad. River Devil is back for sure." He sat beside me and opened the purse that wasn't a purse and pulled out a bundle wrapped in a silk scarf. He opened it up and began singing.

If you've never heard Native American music, it is hard to convey the feel of it. Sometimes there are words, but Gordon Seeker didn't use any. The music flowed up from his chest and resonated in his sinuses--as had the music made by the dancing ghost of my father. Still singing, Gordon Seeker took out a homemade honeycomb wax candle and lit it. It looked as though he lit it with magic, but I can usually sense when someone uses magic. I didn't see a match though I could smell sulfur.

I sniffed suspiciously and he grinned at me and I noticed he was missing one of his front teeth. Still singing, he held up his empty hand and closed his fingers. Then he opened the hand, and he held a burnt matchstick.

Then he pulled a segment of leaf out and held it to the candle. It was dry and lit fast. He let it go, and I tensed to grab it before it burned the trailer-- but the flames consumed the leaf before it hit the carpet, leaving only a smattering of ash and a surprising amount of smoke.

I recognized the plant by its smell when I hadn't recognized the leaf. Tobacco. I guess he didn't smoke a pipe.

Gordon leaned forward and blew the smoke from the tobacco and the candle toward my leg. The blowing didn't seem to affect his song. He tilted his head, and I could only see one of his eyes.

And in his eye I saw a predatory bird that looked somewhat like an eagle. It was so darkly feathered that at first I thought it was a golden eagle, which, despite the name, often looks almost black; but it moved differently.

He closed his eyes, blew again, and when his eye opened, it was bright and predatory--but it was also just an eye in which no bird flew. I decided the antihistamine I'd just taken must have been affecting me more than usual.

He opened a jar and took some yellowish salve out and spread it on the mark the not-a-hemp- rope-not-a-weed had left on my leg. The relief was almost immediate.

He stopped singing, wiped his greasy fingers on his jeans. Then he put the candle out.

Adam looked at me. "It feels a lot better."

"Magic?" Adam asked our visitor.

The old man grinned. "Maybe." He still had the little earthenware jar and tipped it toward me. "Or maybe it's the Bag Balm. I use it on all my cuts and burns." I'd thought that salve had smelled familiar. He'd added something to it, but the base was definitely Bag Balm. My foster mother had used Bag Balm as a cure-all, too. I kept a tin of it at work. "I understand your feet took quite a beating, too. Why don't you get them out where we can see them?"

"How do you know me?" I asked, peeling off my shoes and socks.

Adam had decided to judge this frail old man a possible threat. I could tell because he'd taken a step back out of reach. He was standing guard, ready to do whatever the circumstances required, trusting me to handle the rest. Likewise, I'd trust his judgment about the threat.

Our opponent might be an old man, but both Adam and I had lived around very old things that were dangerous. We wouldn't underestimate this man who smelled of tobacco, woodsmoke ... and magic. It wasn't fae magic, so I hadn't noticed it right away. This was sweeter and subtler, though I didn't think it was any less potent.

Charles smelled a little like this sometimes.

The old man smiled at me and held the unguent pot. "And how would I not know Mercedes Thompson who is married to Adam Hauptman, Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack?"

He did the not-lying thing very well. There are a lot of Other creatures who know when you are lying. Some of the fae, werewolves, some of the vampires--and me. The art of not lying without telling the truth is a valuable skill if you're going to have to deal with people who are Other.

He hadn't known who I was when he came into the trailer. But he'd taken one look at me, and his surprised recognition had been genuine.

"You know what I am," I said, suddenly certain of it. My heartbeat picked up with the excitement of it. He knew what I was and who my father had been.

"Use that salve on your feet," he said. "They look sore." He canted his head toward Adam without taking his eyes off me. "Do you have something for an old man to drink?"

"Soda or apple juice."

"Root beer?" The old man's voice was hopeful.

Adam got a cloth out of a drawer near the little sink and dampened it. Then he opened the miniature fridge and pulled out the silver can and handed it over Gordon's shoulder. He tossed me the damp cloth, then went back to his self- appointed observation post.

I wiped my feet. My calf was still sore, but it wasn't the bonedeep throbbing, and there was no itching. It felt like a rope burn and nothing worse. There had been some sort of magic on whatever had cut my calf, magic that the old man had nullified.

I'm immune to a lot of magic--but not all. Usually, the worse the magic is, the less likely I am to be immune.

The old man opened his pop can and drank it down. He drank the whole thing without taking a breath. When I was a kid, we used to say anyone who could drink a can or bottle dry had killed it. We'd tried it a lot, but the only one of us who could do it was one of the older boys. I'd forgotten his name. He died before I left Montana--a victim of the Change.

Gordon Seeker and I could bandy words back and forth all night--I grew up in a werewolf pack; I knew how to not-lie, too. However, sometimes straightforward was more useful.

"I'm a walker," I told the old man as I rubbed his magic Bag Balm on my feet. "How did you know what I was?"

He laughed, slapping his hands on his thighs. "Is that what they call it?" he said. "After those abominations down south, I suppose? You don't go around wearing the skins of those you kill, do you? How can you be a skinwalker, then? Abominations." He hissed through his teeth, and the sound whistled a little as the air escaped in the gap where the tooth was missing.

"Not a skinwalker but a shapechanger, you are. Coyote, right? Ai." He shook his head. "Coyote brings change and chaos." His head tilted sideways, and he looked as though he was listening to someone I couldn't hear. I glanced at Adam, but he was frowning at the old man.

Gordon Seeker laughed. "Better than death and destruction, surely--but those often follow change anyway. Very well." The eyes he turned to me were fever-bright.

He reached out and tapped my injured leg. "River marked. It meant for you to be its servant-- good thing for you that coyotes don't make good servants. But it means more than that. It tells me that tomorrow you need to go to Maryhill Museum. Enjoy the art and the furniture built by the foreign queen--and then go see what they have in their basement. At noon, you meet my young grandson at Horsethief Lake, and he'll take you to see She Who Watches."

I knew what She Who Watches was though I hadn't ever actually seen her in person. She was the most famous of the pictographs at Horsethief Lake.

"The tours are only open on Fridays," commented Adam. "At ten in the morning."

The old man grunted. "Indians go anytime they want to--it is our place." He tapped me. "She's Indian, no matter what she believes. My grandson is Indian. The two of them can take one Anglo wolf who belongs to an Indian coyote girl."

He stretched and tossed the empty pop can to Adam--who caught it. "Time for this old Indian to go." He looked at me again. "If you are going to use white man's words to describe yourself, `avatar' is more accurate than `walker.'"

He took his bag and indicated the little pot with his chin. "Better you keep that, little sister. A coyote will get herself hurt a lot if she runs with wolves."

And then he left.

Adam and I both waited, holding our breaths, but we heard neither footsteps nor car or boat.

After a moment, I shed my clothes and took coyote shape--and I had about one more change in me tonight. But it was better that I changed than Adam. He opened the door of the trailer and walked out behind me as I put my nose to the ground and scent-trailed the old man. He'd headed for the river and not the road.

I followed him down to the little backwater where Adam and I had played in the river. About ten feet from the drop-off to the beach area, Gordon Seeker's scent and the imprint of his cowboy boots just disappeared. "WHAT DO YOU THINK? WAS HE A GHOST?" ASKED ADAM, as he scrubbed my feet again while I sat on the couch.

I'd told him they were fine. But he'd ignored me and insisted on cleaning them again after I'd gone out running around on them, even though I'd been on paws and not bare feet. It didn't hurt as much as it should have because the salve had healed the minor cuts better than any mundane Bag Balm could have. All I had left was a whole bunch of bruises.

"I think that there is more in heaven and earth, Horatio," I said. "I can usually tell if someone is a ghost. Or if I can't, I've never found out. How about you?"

"He smelled like woodsmoke and predator," said Adam. "He breathed, and I could hear his heart pump. If I had to guess, I'd say not a ghost. But I've never actually seen a ghost, so it's just a guess. A ghost was the first explanation that occurred to me for his disappearing act."

"You've never seen a ghost?" I saw them all the time, so I forgot how seldom other people could perceive them.

"No. So what do you think Gordon Seeker was?"

"You know," I told him, "there's an old Indian custom that Charles told me about once. If a visitor comes to your lodge and admires something out loud, you are supposed to give it to them. Charles says there are three reasons for the custom. The first"--I held up a finger--"is because generosity is a virtue to be encouraged. The second"--I put up another finger--"is to teach you not to be too attached to or too proud of things. Family, friends, community are important. Things are not. Can you guess the third one?"

He smiled. "Charles told me that one. Be careful who you invite into your lodge. I didn't think of it until after Seeker was already in the trailer. Maybe he was the Indian version of a witch. Medicine man."

"Charles says that medicine men and witches aren't very much alike."

My leg itched, and I pulled up my pant leg and contemplated scratching.

"River marked," said Adam, touching the mark lightly.

"He was as bad as the fae," I complained. "He didn't answer anything and just left us with more questions."

Adam kissed my knee, which should not have done anything to my pulse. I mean--the kneecap is as far from an erogenous zone as I know of. But it was Adam, so my heart rate picked up nicely.

He put my feet down. "The magic salve did its job. I don't think you'll need another application tonight. I have a funny feeling that you might need it more later. Speaking of the fae, though, when we start getting people missing and bloody, it's probably time to give Uncle Mike a call and see what he's set us into the middle of."

He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Uncle Mike's number. I heard the sound of loud music, and someone answered in Cornish.

"It's Hauptman," Adam said. "Get Uncle Mike for me." He started pacing the length of the trailer as he sometimes did when he was on the phone. I pulled my feet up--resting them on the towel to keep the couch clean. Without my feet on the floor, Adam had an extra half pace to use. My eyes drooped, and I had to fight to keep them open.

There were several clicks, and the music died down abruptly, as if Uncle Mike had gotten on a quieter extension.

"Adam," he said. "Congratulations. And why would you be calling me while you're on your honeymoon?"

"Otters," said Adam. "More precisely, otters that look like they'd be more at home in the Old Country and who smell of glamour."

He'd sensed it, too, then. That little bit of magic when I was trying to get the boat out from under the tree. It hadn't been Benny or the boat. The otters were the next best thing.

There was a little silence, then Uncle Mike gave a sigh of relief. "They are there, then. Edythe told us that none of her people had seen them for a while."

"Which is why you and Edythe sent us down here?"

Uncle Mike cleared his throat. "Not exactly. Edythe gets hunches sometimes. One of them was when a Roman ex-slave named Patrick came back to Ireland. We all wish we'd killed him right off just as she advised--except probably that would have only meant the Church would have sent someone else, and there would be a Saint Aiden or Saint Conner or some such instead of Saint Patrick. Harbingers are often like that old seven-headed dragon that grew three new heads whenever you cut one off."

"Hydra," Adam said.

"That's the one. Anyway, she doesn't have those moments very often, maybe no more than once a century. Last one was right before Mount St. Helens blew. After that Patrick thing, we all listen to her. A week ago she told me that she had a premonition that it might be a good idea if you and Mercy honeymooned at her campground and took a look at what the otterkin had been up to." "What have they been up to?" Adam had stopped pacing and was looking wary. Edythe, whoever she was, had a premonition once a century or so--and had had one about us being here. That sounded a lot more serious than a man losing his foot to a bear or ghosts dancing beside the river, no matter how much they had affected me.

"Surviving, evidently." Uncle Mike's voice was suddenly grim. "Which is better than we had feared. Otterkin aren't like the selkies, who are their closest kin. There are other fae who wear otter shapes, but they aren't really related to otterkin. For one thing, otterkin don't interact with people well. We brought all that were left to the Walla Walla reservation and turned them loose in our waters."

"You don't have waters there," said Adam, pinching the bridge of his nose. "It was one of the things that the government made sure of--no running water that went into any of the reservations could come running out." He wasn't arguing. He was just telling Uncle Mike that they both knew there was something odd going on in the Walla Walla reservation.

Running water was supposed to enhance the powers of a number of fae. I was surprised anyone in the government--who wasn't fae-- knew that little gem. It had been a useless precaution, though. I've seen oceans in the reservation where they've somehow managed to open entry points into Underhill. That was one of the things I couldn't tell Adam--or anyone else. I'd promised, and the ones who'd suffer if I broke my promise included my mentor, Zee, so I kept my mouth shut.

"We have ponds," said Uncle Mike, not-lying even better than Gordon Seeker had. "But they weren't enough. So Edythe bought a scrub piece of desert and turned it into a campground."

"And turned the otters loose here."

"Otterkin. Edythe had a sanctuary built for them near the swimming hole. They should have been happy there, but they disappeared from it, and we haven't been able to find them for about six months. None of them were in good health when we put them there, and we assumed that they were gone until Edythe suddenly decided to send you."

"Tell me about the otterkin," said Adam.

"You should feel a kindred spirit with them," Uncle Mike told him. "They are shapeshifters who can take human form though their true shape is otter. As humans, they tend to resemble someone with severe autism. In the past, it got many burned at the stake."

"Do they kill people?" asked Adam.

There was a rather long pause. "Not for food," said Uncle Mike.

"Neither do werewolves. Nonetheless, there are bodies wherever there are packs. Are there bodies where there are otterkin?"

"Not of the kind that would bring attention," said Uncle Mike. "They are territorial. Sometimes people drown near otterkin lairs."

"And you put them near the swimming hole."

"Which is protected by rune and magic," snapped Uncle Mike. "They couldn't even drown a baby in that swimming hole. They can swim and fish, but they can harm none therein."

"So they moved to where they could," Adam said. "We found them a few miles upriver. Are we supposed to stop them?"

"For that we wouldn't need you." Uncle Mike's voice was impatient. "There are seven of them. You could eat them for lunch and be hungry by dinner. They have very little magic of their own though they are clever with what they have, and they cooperate with each other. When there were hundreds of them, they were dangerous. There are otter-shaped fae who are powerful--but they are still back in the Old Country and doing fine."

"Otterkin are minor fae," I told Adam. Not too long ago, I'd read a book about the fae, written by a fae woman. It took me a while to remember them because they'd gotten the barest mention. "They used to be very common, but they aren't powerful. Probably no more trouble than real otters would be. River otters usually avoid people, which is good for the people."

"Ah, is that Mercy I hear? What does she say?"

That didn't mean that Uncle Mike couldn't hear me. Maybe he just didn't want Adam and me to know that he could hear what we said. Still, Adam politely repeated my words to Uncle Mike.

"Otterkin were supposed to be friendly and helpful," I added.

"Right," Uncle Mike agreed. "Being hunted to near extinction changes a lot of things. Still, they're not big enough to seriously threaten anyone."

Unless he was hurt and defenseless, as Benny had been.

"Ask Uncle Mike if they'd be able to do what something did to Benny's foot," I said. I couldn't see how they could, but it would be stupid not to ask.

After Adam relayed my question, Uncle Mike said, "No. They might be able to sever a toe or finger. They could kill someone, I suppose, just as a regular river otter could under the proper circumstances. But it would be because they opened up an artery." Then slyly, he said, "Sort of like a coyote might kill a werewolf." Which I had done--and didn't plan on doing again anytime soon. Sheer dumb luck is not something I felt like counting on.

"And Edythe thought that it was important that we check out seven otterkin?" Adam said.

Uncle Mike made a neutral noise. "Her premonitions aren't specific to the fae," he said. "Something bad is going to happen unless the two of you somehow manage to stop it. Or not. Her predictions aren't perfect." His voice got very serious. "You have to understand. This is not a favor you are performing for the fae. It may have nothing to do with the fae at all. We just saw to it that you are in the right place."

"Fine," said Adam coolly. "Have it your way for now. We'll discuss this again when Mercy and I return."

He hung up the phone.

"I was wrong," I said.

"About what?"

"Gordon Seeker wasn't as bad as the fae. At least he didn't engineer our presence at a disaster."

"You think seven otter-sized fae with very little magic comprise a disaster?"

"No," I told him. "But something bad is coming. It doesn't sound like Edythe has premonitions about stubbing your toe or even about some poor guy getting his foot taken off. And Uncle Mike knew it when he sent us here."

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