River Marked Chapter 11

I STOOD UP IN A PANIC, THE BEAT OF CALVIN'S DRUM still strong--but the bond between Adam and me was strong and reassuring. It gave me courage to stay where I was, take a deep breath, and look around to see if I could figure out what had happened to everyone else.

The fire burned, the candles were lit, and the night sky overhead was clear and star-spangled. However, there was a thick fog at ground level, and I could see nothing beyond the outer ring of the henge. About that time I realized that I was in my human shape, wearing the clothes I'd taken off and carefully folded a little while ago. They felt real under my fingers--even the slight roughness where I'd dripped a little mustard on my jeans that afternoon.

But I was pretty sure this was a vision. I couldn't think of any other reason that I could still hear the drum.

The rising hair on the back of my neck told me that somewhere, someone was watching me. I couldn't hear or smell them, but I could feel eyes on me.

Maybe they were waiting for an invitation. "Hello?"

"Hello, Mercedes."

I turned around and found that there were four women walking in through the largest of the staple-shaped rocks. All of them were dressed in identical white doeskin wedding dresses complete with fringe and elk teeth. Their feet were bare and callused, and the pale dust from the light gray gravel covered their feet as if they had been walking in it a long time. They smelled clean and astringent, like sage or witch hazel, but sweeter than either.

I was no expert on native peoples, despite a bit of heritage searching while I was in college. But I was sufficiently well versed to know that each of them was from a very different tribe, despite their too-beautiful-to-be-real features. The first woman looked Navajo or Hopi to me--or maybe even Apache. Her skin was darker than any of the others, and her features were soft. She wore her hair in Princess Leia-like buns on either side of her head, which I thought was a traditional Hopi style--the style of one of the Pueblo Indians, anyway.

The second woman had the rounded, low cheekbones of the Inuit, and her eyes crinkled at me in a friendly fashion. Her hair was separated into two thick braids that hung down to her shoulders.

The third woman looked like someone from one of the Plains tribes, though I couldn't pinpoint exactly what made me think so. Her face was a little less soft than the first two, her gaze clear and penetrating. Like the second woman, she wore her hair in a pair of braids, but hers hung down past her waist. She had bone earrings in her ears --the only one of the four to wear jewelry of any kind.

The fourth woman wore her dark hair pulled loosely back from her face, but otherwise it was free to flow halfway down her back. It was thick and wiry, like the mane of a wild horse. I could not tell what people she was from, except that she was Indian. Her features were sharp, her nose narrow, and her lips full. She was the one who spoke first.

"Mercedes is not a proper Indian name." Her tone, like her words, was critical, but not emotionally so. I'd have expected to hear such a tone from a woman in a market looking at fruit. She pursed her lips briefly, evidently considering my name. "She is a mechanic. We should call her She Fixes Cars."

The first woman, the one who might have been Hopi, shook her head. "No, sister. Bringer of Change."

The woman who looked like one of the Plains Indians but not quite Crow, Blackfeet, or Lakota, frowned disapprovingly. "Rash Coyote Who Runs With Wolf. We could shorten it to Dinner Woman."

The merry Inuit woman laughed. "Mercedes Who Fixes Volkswagens, we have brought you to see us since our brother would not bring us to see you."

"Your brother?" I asked carefully. I was still standing on the altar, which had me looking down on them. That felt wrong, so I stepped off onto the sand and the magic in the ground promptly turned my knees to rubber.

"Coyote," they said at the same time, while the Inuit woman kept me from falling.

I couldn't help but think that it would be a bad thing to sit on the ground if just standing on it had this much of an effect. I sat on the altar and pulled my feet up.

"We cannot tell the future," said the sharp- featured woman whose tribe I couldn't place at all. "But we know what our brother is planning. Would you tell him that it is very dangerous, but it is also the only thing that we could think of that might work?"

"What is he planning?" I asked.

"We can tell you here." Inuit Woman sat beside me but left her feet on the ground. "But he can't tell you until he rids himself of her spies. That's actually why we brought you here--that, and we wanted to get a look at you. He Sees Spirits--you know him as Jim Alvin--has opened this way between us for a short time. Coyote needed privacy to speak to the others, to Hawk and Raven, to Bear and Beaver, and to the rest. We decided that you should know what he says."

"River Devil," said the Hopi-Navajo-possibly- Apache woman, "is a creature who lives in your world and ours at the same time. In ours she is immortal, but she can be killed in yours. Once she is dead, she cannot go back unless she is summoned. But at that time she returns bigger and more dangerous than before. The last time our brother confronted her, he trapped her rather than killing her in the hope that it would be more effective than killing her had proved." I decided she was Hopi, and as I did so, her features changed just a little until there was no possibility of her being anything else.

"Who would summon that thing?" I asked.

The Inuit woman shrugged. "There will always be fools, and the river devil can be persuasive to the minds of men."

The sharp-featured woman.

"Cherokee," I said, suddenly certain I had it right. She smiled a small secret smile, the kind that always makes me want to smack Bran. "If you like." She tilted her head, and said, "River Devil is Hunger because living between worlds for those without a hold in either is costly. She must consume food for both her aspects: meat for the flesh and for the spirit."

The Hopi woman continued, "All life is rife with possibilities. Seeds have possibilities, but all their tomorrows are caught by the patterning of their life cycle. Animals have possibilities that are greater than that of a fir tree or a blade of grass. Still, though, for most animals, the pattern of instinct, the patterns of their lives, are very strong. Humanity has a far greater range of possibilities, especially the very young. Who will children grow up to be? Who will they marry, what will they believe, what will they create? Creation is a very powerful seed of possibility."

The Plains woman who was not Lakota, Crow, or Blackfeet said, "River Devil feeds on possibilities."

Inuit Woman reached up to place her hand on her sister's shoulder. "She feeds on the death of those possibilities. For this reason, she must feed upon people rather than animals, animals rather than plants. But best of all, she loves to feed upon children."

"She feeds on the end of possibilities," corrected the Plains woman--Shoshone, I decided. She looked Shoshone to me. She smiled as if she'd heard me think it aloud. It was a big smile, like her brother's. "The greater the possibilities, the better her hunger is sated. When she is full, she must digest her prey both here in the world of spirits and also there in the world of flesh. While she is doing that, she is vulnerable."

"Coyote and his kind--Hawk, Bear, Salmon, Wolf, Thunderbird, and others--they have more possibilities than even a newborn child." The Cherokee woman turned in a graceful circle as if to encompass all that Coyote and those like him were. "If Coyote can persuade enough of them to allow River Devil to consume them, they may be enough to force the river devil to overeat. And she will be helpless until she digests them all."

"While she is helpless, someone needs to kill her." The Inuit sister looked at me with her big dark eyes, and I knew, with a sinking feeling, who they were talking about.

"What about Fred or Hank?" I asked. Adam couldn't do it. His strength might make him a better candidate, but werewolves don't swim. I wouldn't risk Adam to the river.

"They are vulnerable to the river devil's mark," she said. Then she paused and addressed my unvoiced thought. "I do not know about the werewolf. Alone, he would be like the others, but his pack might keep him safe . . ."

"Or she might gain the whole pack." The Hopi woman shook her head. "No. That would not be wise. Nor is water the werewolf's element for all that it is an element of change."

Shoshone Woman said, "She must die, then. As she eats, she grows in power. If she does not die before she digests such a meal as our brother will provide, she will be much, much more destructive than she is now."

"What about an airstrike," I said. "Or nuclear weapons. I know people who might be able to get the military in on this." Bran could. He might not be out--but he knew how to get things done when he wanted to.

Hopi Woman shook her head. "No. Modern weapons will not harm her. Only the most simple thing, a symbol of the earth that opposes her water: a stone knife."

"Our time is short now," Cherokee Woman said. "You must go back."

Shoshone Woman touched my cheek. "Tell our brother he is wise, that we have no further words of wisdom to add to his."

"He says that you are not speaking to him," I said.

She laughed, but it was a sad laugh. "Coyote doesn't usually lie, but sometimes he forgets. It is he who is angry with us. We gave him advice he did not like, and he got mad."

Cherokee Woman narrowed her eyes at me. "We told him nothing good could come of letting Joe Old Coyote take the Anglo woman to his bed."

Inuit Woman smiled and touched my leg. "Obviously, we were wrong."

"Coyote is like the river devil," I said. "Right? He walks in both places. So why doesn't he eat everything in sight?"

"Coyote walks in one world at a time," Cherokee Woman told me. "He can do this without being trapped because we wait for him here, and you and his other descendants anchor him there."

"Coyote understands that the Universe is all one." Shoshone Woman's voice was indulgent.

"Coyote," said Hopi Woman dryly, "doesn't much worry about understanding anything, which is why he understands so much."

"What happens when the river devil eats them? Coyote and the others." In the stories, Coyote died and was reborn the next day, but there was an air of resignation that clung to these women that hinted at something more dire this time.

They exchanged looks that I could not read.

"We don't know." Inuit Woman stared out into the fog that surrounded us. "As I told you, it is not given to us to know the future. We are merely wise advisors."

"It may be that this is the last time for Coyote to walk your world," said Cherokee Woman in a low voice. "So much has changed, it is impossible to know what those changes mean."

"There are some who do not walk either world any longer." Shoshone Woman's eyes glistened with tears. "River Devil is of both worlds and so could send them back scattered into the universe."

"Do not worry about that which cannot be changed." Hopi Woman sat on the ground and patted my tennis shoes. "Even if Coyote is not reborn with the morning sun, there is always hope of a new dawn. Come now, sisters, it is time to send her back."

"I think she looks like me," said Shoshone Woman. "What do you think?"

AND HER WORDS STILL RANG IN MY EARS WHEN I found myself back where I had started. Time had passed--I could tell because Jim was kneeling on the rug feeding tobacco leaves into the fire. He sang, the words unintelligible to my ears, but not foreign. Adam licked my nose, then nipped it--he'd noticed I was gone, then. I'd ask him later if my body had disappeared with me or if it had just waited there for me. I nuzzled him to let him know I was fine.

One of the hawks--Fred and Hank were hard to tell apart when they were human; as hawks I figured I might have a fifty-fifty chance--fluttered his wings and cried out softly. We were apparently bothering him.

Adam hopped up on the altar where I was sitting and stepped over me with his front paws. He lowered his head and showed the hawk his teeth. Both hawks retreated to the far edge of the altar because neither was stupid, and maybe because Adam had great big teeth.

I glanced first at Jim, who seemed to be very focused on his song and on feeding the last of the tobacco leaves into the fire, then out at Coyote and Gordon--who were gone.

Adam licked my ear, then lay down between me and the hawks. His front paws hung down over the front of the altar, and I suspect his back paws were off on the other end. The three feet of cement that was the width of the altar was generous for me but wasn't nearly enough to hold a whole werewolf.

Jim closed his eyes and held up his right hand. When he closed his fist, the drumbeat stopped-- and with it, the overwhelming pulse of magic. It was like someone had pulled the plug at a nightclub, and all the music stopped. As suddenly as if someone had slammed a door, Stonehenge was as mundane as an exact model of a neolithic calendar could be.

No magic, no mystery, just a gray cement monument that suddenly had a lot more people in it than there had been when the drum had been sounding.

Gordon and Coyote in their human guises were standing in front of the monoliths they'd started out on top of. Between us and them, six Indian men I'd never seen before stepped away from the monoliths.

One man, who looked no older than Calvin, was in a three-piece suit. Adam had taught me to recognize good suits, and this one was several thousand dollars of very nice. Another, like Gordon, was wearing a modern cowboy look, though his was toned down a fair bit. Brown boots, jeans, earth-tone striped shirt, and a brown Montana-style (narrow-brimmed) cowboy hat. Iron gray hair was braided tightly and fell over his shoulder and almost to his knees.

The other four wore traditional native garb, though unlike Coyote's sisters, no two of them were dressed alike. There were two in hunting leathers of slightly different styles. The older one, whose wrinkled face and white hair made Gordon look like a young man, wore leathers that were nearly as pale as the doeskin Coyote's sisters had worn. Except for the fringe around the shoulder seams, his leathers were very plain. The other man's hunting leathers were a rich dark brown with ornate quillwork around his neckline. There were stains on his clothes, as if he'd gone hunting many times wearing that particular shirt and leggings.

The third man in native dress wore leather leggings, but his loose shirt was made of patterned red gingham and tied with a hemp belt that ended in a fringe to which tiny brass bells were tied. His hair was cut straight around his jawline.

The fourth had a red cloth wrapped around his head, almost like a turban, from which maybe a dozen brownish red feathers stuck straight up. He wore a beaded breechclout that reached his knees in front and back. His shirt was a striped cotton that looked to have been loomed by hand rather than machine from the slight irregularity of the weave.

I got a really good look at his shirt because he walked right up to the altar and grabbed the hawk nearest me, one hand confining the wicked talons. He pulled the bird hard against his body, trapping the wings with his arm, and the sharp beak with his hand.

"So," he said, his voice heavily accented. "She tries to steal my hawk's will."

"As I told you, Hawk," said Coyote. "Can you fix it?"

The man holding the bird gave Coyote a cold stare with eyes as sharp as those of the animal who took his name. The hawk left behind made a soft noise, like a baby bird in the nest.

"I do not approve of you, Coyote. You have always been more concerned with the two-legged people than the people in fur."

"I was asked to help. Would you have refused the request of the Great Spirit?"

Hawk snorted. "You were doing it before that. And look what has happened." He let go of the hawk's talons to make a sweeping gesture. It didn't matter because Hank was limp in his grasp. "There are cars and roads, bridges and houses until the earth cannot breathe. It would have been better had the Great Spirit stopped with the first people."

Coyote sneered, just a little. "As I'm sure you would tell him."

"I'm telling you," said Hawk.

He reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt and small gravel. He tossed it into the air, and the wind caught it, held it. He held the bird up over his head, and the wind blew the handful of earth through the hawk, who cried out when it hit him.

He threw the bird up in the air, gave Coyote another cold look, and disappeared. The bird dropped, and Hank landed in a naked human heap on the ground. Naked meant that it was easy to see that the mark was gone.

Beside me, Fred, also in human skin, scrambled off the altar and over to his brother. Jim, now seated on the rug and looking exhausted but fascinated, motioned to his apprentice, and Calvin took off at a run, presumably for clothes, but I wasn't certain.

"Hawk is impetuous," said the man in the suit. "And I don't like agreeing with him." His casual gaze traveled around Stonehenge in mild curiosity. It passed over Adam and me, then returned. Pale blue eyes that looked wrong and somehow utterly right in that oh-so-Native- American face focused on Adam.

"Ah," he said, striding over in the same no- nonsense ground-covering way that Adam used to cross a crowded room. "This is the werewolf."

Adam got slowly to his feet and shook himself lightly. As he stood on top of the altar, his head was level with the collarbone of the suited man-- who could only be Wolf.

"I had heard of your kind," Wolf said.

I glanced at the other men there, but they seemed to be happy to let Wolf take center stage as Hawk had done a moment ago.

"Werewolf." Wolf frowned. "I had thought it an abomination when I heard it first. Wolf trapped in the same skin as a human--always in opposition with each other. And in some ways it is abominable. But look at you. You are beautiful."

I thought so, too.

"How is that different from our walkers?" asked Coyote in an interested tone. "They carry both spirits, too."

"No," said Wolf absently, still lost in his examination of Adam. "In our descendants, there is only one spirit that expresses itself as either human or animal. This is different. The wolf is mine, and the man not at all. And yet it works."

He touched Adam, and I felt it through our bond, felt Adam's wolf come forward to meet Wolf. Adam was wary but not alarmed, neither dominant nor dominated.

Wolf's hands traveled all over Adam's head and neck, like a judge at a dog show. Adam showed no sign that it bothered him though it bothered me. Adam was mine.

"The perfect predator," Wolf purred, leaning forward and rubbing his cheek possessively against Adam's cheek.

I may have let out a disgruntled yip.

Wolf glanced over at me with cool blue eyes, and his mouth curled up in the beginnings of a snarl.

"That one is mine," said Coyote. His tone was casual, but there was steel behind it that turned the simple comment into a warning.

Wolf looked at Coyote and reached out to swat me with the back of his hand--and Adam caught that hand in his teeth. Wolf spun back with a hiss, and Adam released his hand--but there was blood. Adam flattened his ears, stepping between me and Wolf. He wasn't quite snarling, but he'd made his position clear.

"Do you see this," Wolf said. "Abomination. Wolves do not run with coyotes."

"It's a romance as old as time," soothed Coyote. "Rules are set up for the good of society. But as soon as you make a rule, someone feels the need to break it. If it helps, most werewolves mate with humans. Even worse, I would think, than one of my coyotes."

Wolf took a step toward Adam. "She is your mate?"

I couldn't tell if that made it better or worse, and I don't think Wolf knew, either. His hand had quit bleeding already. Adam hadn't done much more than break through the skin. It had been a warning and not a real attempt to hurt Wolf. I'd like to think that Adam was too smart to take on something like Wolf--but I was afraid that wasn't true, not if he thought Wolf would hurt me. I regretted that yip of possession even though I was pretty sure that I'd do it again in the same circumstances. I didn't like anyone except me having their hands all over him. There had been possession in Wolf's touch, and Adam belonged to me.

"You have left her with the river's mark," said the cowboy Indian in the earth-toned clothes. His voice was silky smooth and beautiful.

"I have, Snake," said Coyote. "Because I have killed the river devil before, she cannot take over Mercy as she does everyone else. But Mercy is now something of interest to the river devil, something that we've already proved can get her attention and bring her to where we want her in pretty short order. The river devil doesn't like its prey to get away from it, and she wants it back." He looked at me. "There are a lot of miles of water between The Dalles and John Day."

And it hadn't taken her ten minutes to find me when Coyote threw me in the river. He'd been right: we had learned a lot from that.

Calvin had returned from wherever he'd gone. He had a couple of blankets, which he gave to Fred and Hank. Hank took one with a nod of thanks; but Fred just changed back into a hawk and flew up to perch next to one of the candles on a nearby standing stone.

The old man in white hunting leathers said, "I think it might be better to let River Devil have her way. When she has eaten the whole world, it can be made anew again."

"You sound so certain," said Gordon in an interested voice. "Are you? I don't think it is as easy as all that."

The old man growled at him, a big, rumbling sound that was somehow fitting coming from that fierce old body.

"Friend Bear," said Coyote. "Change is not bad. Change is just change. Startling to those of us who go away, then come back after a long time, yes. But it is not evil."

"Look at the pollution." Bear took a breath as if he could smell smog out there a hundred miles from anywhere. My nose is very good, and I would have called his bluff if I could have talked. "The roads, the railroads. Look at the houses upon houses that destroy hunting ground and leave only a tiny fraction of the forests free. Wolf has said that Mother Earth cannot move underneath the cement and steel, and I say that he is right."

"There are things that are bad," Coyote said. "But there were bad things then, too. Starving times. Freezing times. Times of sickness. There are good things here." He waved a hand at Wolf. "Look at the clothes you wear. That suit is silk and wool woven in a fashion that was not possible a few centuries ago. All change brings bad things and good things to replace the bad and good things that were before. It is natural to look back and say it was better before--but that does not make it true. Different is not worse. It is just different."

"There is some truth in what you say, Coyote." Wolf was petting his suit jacket with the same sort of possessiveness he'd shown toward Adam.

"I don't like it here," said the man in the darker leathers; he sounded unhappy and uneasy.

"Bobcat." Coyote liked this one. I could tell by the tone of his voice. "There are good hunting grounds here; you just have to find them--as was always true. The sun is still warm, and flowers still smell sweet."

"You should take him to Disneyland," suggested Gordon. "Or I could. I like Disneyland."

The purely human contingent had been very quiet up to this point. But now Calvin spoke. "If you give it a chance, I think you would find it isn't horrible here."

The man with the belt with the brass bells put an arm around Bobcat. "The problem is this, Bobcat. Things change whether you want them to, or not--unless you are dead." His voice was hoarse, like a three-pack-a-day-for-twenty-years smoker. "Don't hold so hard to the past that you die with it."

He looked at Coyote. "There is no sense in this, though. We have all agreed to do as you asked, or we would not be here. Where and when?"

"As Raven says," agreed Coyote formally. Then he described how to find our campsite in a way that ravens, bobcats, wolves, snakes, and bears could find it. When he was finished, he said, "As for when, the sooner the better, I think. Tomorrow?"

"After dark," said Jim. "Calvin says the FBI are looking for whoever is responsible for the killing field that this river has become. You don't want them showing up at the wrong time." He looked at Raven, and said, "Warriors with bang sticks who are river marked is a bad idea."

Raven smiled at him. "I do know who the FBI are," he told Jim. "Coyote is not the only one who still wanders."

While they were talking, the others had left. Some of them seemed to walk away, but I saw Wolf disappear, probably because he did it while still staring at Adam. Who belonged to me.

"Thank you, Raven," said Coyote, after a quick glance to see that the other animal spirits, including Gordon, were gone.

"We may all die forever tomorrow, old friend," said Raven. "But it will be interesting, anyway." ADAM AND I LEFT TO CHANGE AND GET DRESSED, too--but I was the only one doing any changing. Adam's panicked gaze met mine as I was putting on my jeans.

"Hold on," I told him. "There's help about."

I pulled on my clothes, stuck my shoes on my feet, and grabbed Adam's clothes as fast as I could. Then I bounded back up the hill, hoping like heck that Coyote hadn't already vanished like the rest of them.

Why I was so sure that Coyote knew anything about werewolves was a mystery to me, but it seemed right. He'd known Adam would have trouble shifting when the earth magic was singing.

The candles were all out. Jim and Calvin were gone; Fred and Hank had left before we'd headed out to change. Stonehenge looked deserted.

"Coyote?" I called.


I'd been almost certain he was gone, but he and Raven had apparently been sitting on the altar playing a card game in the dark. Hard to believe I'd missed them, but Coyote was that sort, so I didn't worry about it. I had other things on my mind.

"Adam can't change back. Would the earth magic have done something that keeps him from shifting?"

"He can't change back to human?" Coyote folded up his hand of cards and set them on the bronze plaque, giving us his full attention. "That's awkward, this being your honeymoon."

"He can't change," I said, ignoring the last sentence. "Is it the earth magic? Will the effects go away after we leave here?"

Coyote considered it. "The earth magic shouldn't do anything unless directed by a shaman, and I think Jim likes you."

Raven gave his head a birdlike twitch. "It wasn't Jim, and it wasn't the earth magic." His voice left no room for doubt. "Your werewolf bit our Wolf, remember?"

Raven grinned at me, a big warm expression that was infinitely reassuring though I could think of no reason I should trust him. "Wolf takes things like that personally. But he's not one to cling to his angers, either." His face became a little pensive. "Not like Owl."

Coyote snorted. "He still bearing a grudge for that? That happened a long, long time ago."

"How was I to know that it was his favorite thing?" Raven's eyes twinkled with starlight. "It was shiny." He glanced at me. "But it was heavy, so I dropped it in the ocean. It was an accident."

"You think that this is something Wolf did?" I had a good grip on the ruff around Adam's neck. It was a habit I'd developed over the past few months because I found it reassuring.

Adam didn't look worried or nervous, but he wouldn't, not in front of people who were essentially strangers. I was doing the worried and nervous for both of us.

A werewolf can stay wolf for a while. A couple of days, no trouble. A few weeks . . . well, not so good, but most of them will be okay afterward. Months were possible--one or two. After that, he would be all wolf with no human. Bran's son Samuel had experienced that, and his wolf had behaved in a mostly civilized fashion for a couple of weeks without losing it, astonishing everyone. It was unlikely that Adam, who had not seen his first century, could do the same.

"How long?" I asked.

Coyote sighed. "Mercedes, it takes power to pull forward Adam's wolf so strongly that his human half cannot change. We . . . None of us has a lot of that kind of power over here anymore, which is probably why Wolf did it: to show that he is not to be trifled with." Coyote looked at Adam. "He could have killed you had he desired. It would have been easier. After tomorrow's battle, I should be very surprised if Wolf's punishment does not fade away. It would be easy to be angry with him --but he and the others have agreed to sacrifice themselves. It is, I think, unlikely that he will return to this place soon after that."

"If ever," agreed Raven quietly. He had picked up all the cards and laid out a solitaire pattern. Spider, I thought, or some variant. "So give him his dignity and don't worry."

"Thank you," I told them both. I started to go, then I remembered something. "Hey, Coyote?"

He had just scooped up the cards again and was in the middle of shuffling. "Yes."

"Your sisters told me to tell you that they thought your plan was a good one."

"Did they tell you what it was?" He resumed shuffling, but there was a rapidity to his movement that told me he was feeling something strongly.

"Yes." I took a deep breath. "Weak link here, I think. But I'll do my best."

He smiled. "Yes, I expect you will."

WHEN SOMETHING WOKE ME UP FROM A SOUND SLEEP in the middle of the night, I assumed it was Coyote again. This time I woke Adam up, too.

"Someone wants me outside," I told him, tapping my head. "I think Coyote might want to talk again."

When I got out of bed, I tripped over the walking stick. I picked it up gently, instead of swearing at it, and leaned it against the wall. Swearing at ancient artifacts seemed a little unwise. Not something I'd do unless I'd carefully considered all the possible effects.

Adam and I made our way out to the swimming hole, where the call was coming from. But it wasn't Coyote.

Out in the darkness I could see her--or at least her wake. The roiling water burbled and swirled as she swam in lazy circles.

Mercedes Thompson. Her voice was in my head.

I sat down on the ground with a thump, in the faint hope that it would somehow make it harder for her to get me into the water. Coyote had been too precipitous in declaring me immune to her charms. Perhaps she couldn't make me drown my own children--and Jesse, thank goodness, was a hundred miles away. But she could call me out to her, and she could speak to me.

I thought as hard as I could, Go die.

Mercedes, she said again, her voice like a cool liquid in my head, giving me the mother of all ice- cream headaches. Are you listening to me? Do you see what I want you to see?

"Do you hear her?" I asked Adam.

He looked out toward the river.

"No." I tapped him, then tapped my head. "She's in here."

His teeth gleamed white in the darkness.

MacKenzie Hepner was eight years old as of four days ago. She was supposed to be in the tent with her little brother, but something had woken her up. She hitched up her nightgown and waded in the cold water. On her arm she could see the mark that that weed had left when she went swimming too far out in the river, and her stepdad had to swim out and rescue her. It made her reconsider how she felt about her stepdad. He hadn't even yelled at her, just hugged her. It took her a while to figure out he was scared, too . . .

Do you see what I want you to see, Mercedes?

My breath started coming in panicked gulps. I hadn't been just dreaming about the ill-fated Janice and her family. The river devil had fed me the details afterward. Maybe that hadn't been on purpose. Maybe. But they had been real, and this eight-year-old named MacKenzie was real, too.

I hid my forehead against Adam and told him what was happening, giving him the words when she gave words to me, describing the rest. He whined unhappily. Gesture to me if you see what I want you to see. Did you see her?

Evidently, she couldn't read my thoughts. Like Bran, she could only shove things at me.

MacKenzie's feet were numb, and the rocks made the bottoms hurt. She shouldn't be out here in the river in the dark. She knew it was against the rules--

I waved my hand weakly. I didn't want to know any more about a child who was going to walk into the river and get eaten.

I will let her live.

"She says she'll let the child live," I told Adam.

He got it, I think, before I did, because he lunged up and snarled at her--at me, then bumped me with a hip in a clear order to go back to the trailer.

I felt her laughter. She'd seen Adam's reaction. She knew I'd heard her.

Bargain. A bargain. A bargain. You for her. You come die tonight, and I will let the little girl and her little brother live.

Adam planted himself between me and the river devil.

"She offers a bargain," I told him. "Me for the little girl--and apparently her brother. If I die, they won't."

Adam looked at me, his heart in his eyes.

"She's eight," I told him. "Just. Yesterday her stepfather proved that he might be okay. She's willing to give him a chance. She has a younger brother that she could go get and bring with her." I swallowed. "What would you do, Adam? Would you die so that little girl could live?"

I knew the answer--and from his body language, so did he. Then he looked at the monster out in the water and back to me with a flicker of his ears. He couldn't do it because she didn't want him. I couldn't do it, either. No matter how much I wanted to. Without me, Coyote's plan wouldn't work.

"Would she lie?" I said, while the river devil chanted her promises in my head. "I'm worth more to her than the child, I think. She knows about Coyote and his interest in me, and it worries her. But after I'm dead? Would she keep her word? Who would know?"

"She would keep her word." Coyote came up to stand beside Adam. "I can't let you do it, anyway."

"I know. Your sisters made it clear that you need me."

Adam whined again.

"I'll tell you about them," I promised. I'd forgotten to let him know what had happened; we'd both been tired.

Choose, Mercedes.

"For an ancient evil, she speaks awfully good English," I said.

"She's been eating English-speaking people." Coyote sat next to me.

"Can you hear her?" I asked.

He shook his head. "No. She can't mark me."

"Could you save her?" I asked Coyote. "Could you save that little girl? Didn't you carve the way for the waters to flow and move mountains? Raven hung the stars."

"That was a long time ago, under the Great Spirit's direction," he said, sounding sad. "I'm on my own here."

"Why doesn't the Great Spirit take care of this?"

"Why should He?" Coyote asked. "All that is mortal dies. Death is not such a bad thing. What would be a bad thing would be living without challenges. Without knowing defeat, we cannot know what victory is. There is no life without death."

"I like my god better than I like yours," I told him.

"Don't you know, child? He is one and the same." Coyote watched the river devil wait for my response. "The Great Spirit has given us our wits and our courage. He sends helpers and counsel. He sent me to you, didn't he? I talked to my sisters tonight. It was a good thing."

"Can you save this girl?"

"Do you know where she is?"

"A campground near the river," I said. But was it a campground? There were a lot of places you could just go camping. "No." "Then no."

"Damn it," I said.

You or they die. Bargain. You die, they live.

"Is there anyone else who could take my role?" I asked.

"None that I know of. I was surprised that you were not controlled by her mark. You are the only creature who is wholly of this realm that I have seen resist her."

"If I weren't here, what would you do?"

He sighed. "One of us would take your place. But there are only seven of us who can or will help. I believe that a time will come when the Great Spirit will send us back out into the world again, entrusted with tasks to accomplish. But many of us were hurt when the Europeans swept through here. Disease took so many of our children, then the vampires singled out those who managed to survive and brought more death upon them . . ." He sighed. "We were allowed to retreat and lick our wounds--and for many it will take the Great Spirit to pry them out of their safe dens." He scuffed his bare foot on the ground, rolling a rock a dozen feet. "I won't lie. We may not have enough to do what we need, even with you. Without you?" He shook his head.

Mercedes. The demand was angry and impatient. I picked up a rock and chucked it in the river as my answer.

Coward to save yourself at the expense of a child. You shall see what you have done.

I learned a lot in the next fifteen or twenty minutes. I learned that MacKenzie's little brother was named Curt, like my stepfather. He was four --and marked as MacKenzie was, so he didn't fight when his sister carried him on her hip out into the river. As a treat especially for me, I think, the river devil released her hold on their minds before she killed them. But maybe it was because MacKenzie's screams had her parents tearing out of their tent and into the water after them.

I learned that I could have exchanged my life for four people's lives. Four.

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