He emerges from the great water, drawn by the beat of just one drum. The sentinels, one black and one silver, tired from their long watch, blink and chuff from the shelter of the trees.
Granite, he glistens in the light of dawn, falls to his knees beside tide pools brimming with life, and bends his neck.
"I have come to claim what is mine." His voice scatters black pebbles on the ground.
Nodding, the warriors turn toward the east, majestic shoulders and haunches parallel. The dead one drags himself to his feet and stands between their backs. They warriors exchange a wary glance for he is sticks and ink. The only color upon him is the devil's mark of his hair.
Be easy. Be comforted, the silver tells him. Your time is at hand.
Slowly, he reaches out and places his palm on her scruff, burying bony fingers gently in the softness. "I do thank you."
There is no need. It is what it is.
The silver and the black begin to run but the dead one stumbles and collapses to green earth. The silver whines and circles back. Lies down with murder and gives it her blessing. The one they once knew and still know trembles to his knees and crawls onto her back with a cry of thanks. She flies forward. The joy of speed and the wind and the scent of living things lift his heart. Beside her, the black runs silent on paths dappled with soft green summer light.
At the white cottage, the rider flinches, dismounts, displays his palms, and bows. "Chief." His nostrils flare and his eyes widen in dread. Salt water trickles down his forehead and beads on his lashes.
Murder would cry if it could. "It was you who summoned me."
"She asked for you."
Granite crumbles, his fist to his mouth. "Why wouldn't you let me come before? I have begged and begged and you denied me. Ten years!"
"You are Apotampkin."
Eyes flash black. "I was never Apotampkin! I was Whale! I was Narwhal! I was Mountain Lion, I was Man, and she was Lamb, and Deer, and Horse, and Woman. But I was never Death!"
And so the grizzled chief raises his chin to look upon what he has made. "I am sorry. What is done cannot be undone. I have named you Death and so you are. Take your future and depart in peace, but do not take what is mine."
"I only want what is mine!" Death's own nails rend holes in the worn cloth over his heart.
Brown eyes, the wrong brown, glint with hatred. "You will not take everything from me. I want my son back! I want Sue's son back! They will not come with her here but they will return for their children. You are nothing but dry bones. Lay claim to what is mine and you will be ash. Now, take what is yours and call me merciful!"
Apotampkin's pupils dilate as he opens the door and crosses the threshold to limbo. Two small brown children, the long-haired echo of their fathers, stare up at him with interest. That which is on the bed stinks of sickness and grief but he cannot break down for it would upset the children. What in this tidy white place belongs to him? He falls to his knee and drinks them up with his black eyes but hears nothing.
Brown eyes are just the same. Six brown eyes, now, not two. Four open and lustrous, two peacefully shut. "You're her children."
The boy rises to his small height and puffs out his chest. "You are worthy."
"My mother says so."
"What is your name?"
"Edward Jacob Swan." He folds his hands as though reciting a poem in bygone days. "I am named for her heart, for he who made me and for he who named her. I am named for three fathers."
The dead one opens his arms and his heart. "Come to your father."
The boy does not hesitate, but tucks himself under Death's chin. "Now," Heaven says, playing with the buttons on the dead one's shirt, "I have met one of my fathers."
Granite's forehead wrinkles up. "Have you not met the others?"
The boy shakes his head. "He who made me left before I was born and calls other boys his sons, and Grandpa Swan has gone to Heaven."
Little fingers tug at his tattered sleeve. "I am named for two grandmothers! Mary Elizabeth Clearwater."
He sits back on his heel to look. "Seth was your father."
Her lip trembles. "He said you were my true father."
The dead one would cry if he could. "Did he?"
"He found his princess. He said my true father would come back and we would live happily ever after in his kingdom with Mommy."
The dead one cannot speak for a moment. "You… would come with me?"
Little fingers reach out. "Will you be my daddy?"
Tenderly, he gathers her up and kisses each child. "If I could have my way, I would be your daddy forever." Small ones' breath tickles his neck. Small hearts make his heart want to beat again. But how can it beat? Their grandfather's threat has sunken into his desiccated bones and he does not know what belongs to him.
Soft, white sheets rustle and the woman in the bed catches her breath. The dead one shivers as life enters his lungs. Releasing the children, he approaches Love on his knees. It was always that way. Glazed brown eyes warm. She does not speak.
"Bella?" he asks shakily. She collapses in grief.
"He didn't say my real name. I thought he was real, but thank you, God, for letting me see him before I go. Just let me say goodbye to the children, and I'll be ready." She reaches for little hands.
"No," the one who is not dead says thickly. "Love!"
Her hair is the brittle black of burnt straw, her skin the color of birch bark. "Call me by my true name."
The one gulps and blinks salt from his eyes. "Isabella. Marie. Cullen."
Brown eyes flood with tears. "That's the name I lost. Tell me my true name!"
She looks away.
He takes up her thin fingers and kisses them frantically. "My mate." She is withdrawing from him! "Wife!"
Her mouth opens and she sucks down air. Color floods waxy cheeks as she reaches out for him. "Edward, are you really here?"
"You're really here!"
"I'm here to claim you forever. You, and my children."
Without hesitation, she throws frail arms around his neck. He strips away the winding sheet and sweeps her up with surprising strength. Their mouths meet and her taste is wrong but her heart is perfect and he will take it. He will take anything she offers him now!
"Make me yours!"
"Say you love me."
Sitting on the bed where other men made his children, he finds it surprisingly easy to take life. And give it. He tightens his grasp when she flinches at the burn, and when she falls limp, traces his fingers down the soft cotton of the man's t-shirt she's wearing. When he sniffs it, he realizes that it's an old one of his.
"Apotampkin!" comes the bark from the next room.
Wearily, he stands, his prize cradled in his arms. Her small bare feet dangle. Daughter wraps her little fingers around Mommy's ankle. Son grasps the tail of Daddy's shirt. They limp their way out into the light together. Three adversaries block their way.
The old chief lurches forward in his chair. "I told you not to take what's mine! Children! Come here!"
"Billy!" a young woman snaps. She is the silver sentinel. "They don't belong to you! Jacob didn't want them. Seth wanted them to go where they belong. With Bella!"
"I can't let you keep them," Edward says. "They belong with us!" He could never face Bella if he gave them away. "You'll have to kill me."
The old chief points at him. "Kill him."
Edward turns to stone. The black sentinel snarls and bunches up to leap. The silver phases to wolf and knocks him away, spittle and furniture flying. Edward scoops his son onto his back and snatches his baby girl up with one arm. Juggling three loved ones, he knows he's too malnourished to outrun shape changers. But he must!
Shots ring out. Edward gasps, now running for his life. For his family's life. A silver wolf cries out in pain and he hurls himself forward.
Run! Run for the water! The silver sentinel orders before her thoughts go dark.
"Did Poppa shoot Auntie Leah?" E.J. shouts.
Little girl wails. Edward crashes into the forest and slows his pace. He cannot run here without hurting his family. Earth trembles from the weight of heavy paws and Edward shudders as he scuttles forward. It is so far to the great water!
Roots seem to rise up from the earth, threatening to trip him. He weaves in and out of the thick forest, praying to a god he thought he didn't believe in for deliverance. He can hear the wolves all around him. The black one is closing ground fast!
A huge, red wolf bursts out of the forest right in front of him and he crouches, plucks the small boy from his back and hides three precious heads beneath his forearms. "Please!"
A large grey wolf stalks around to flank the red. I knew you would come. My name is Seth.
"Seth." What does he want? Has he come to take his daughter back? "Please, Seth. Please?" He hardly knows what he's asking.
The lips of the red wolf retract, baring teeth like daggers. He prepares to spring. Edward releases Bella and she slumps to the ground. He covers the eyes of the children and prays they will be spared.
The red wolf jumps over Edward's head. Seth lies down, his pale blue eyes huge.
On my back. Hurry!
Edward wastes no time. He sets E.J. on Seth's shoulders and places Mary behind. He lifts Bella to face him, wraps her legs around him, hops onto Seth's back and lies forward. His bony hands knot into long silky hair and they're off. Back in the forest, shape shifters snarl and crash and snap until the red wolf arrives.
Let them go! His inner voice is incredibly loud. The fighting stops.
Seth peeks back at Edward. You must never come back here. He will hate you now, for having what he can't.
"Why did he give them away, then?"
When he left Bella, it almost destroyed her. He knows what she always wanted. It was never him. But he left and she decided she was undesirable. He knows he should never have taken up with her in the first place. He knew what we were and what would happen. He knew it wouldn't last. And then, when he imprinted, he simply left. Bella was single and pregnant.
"So, is that why she married you, then? You knew it wouldn't last for you, either."
She needed a good name, a mother and a friend. I was her friend. I never expected her to love me more than that.
"But… the child."
I could not bring my mate and children home and flaunt them in front of Bella. I could not make my first daughter second best. I love my daughter, but I cannot provide the kind of home for her that she needs. Will you love my daughter as your own?
The great wolf with his burden runs from the shadows into the misty breeze. Two blond, male vampires run out of the great water. Edward allows himself and Bella to slide down Seth's back onto gritty dark gravel. The first vampire floods the atmosphere with joy. He takes the small girl off the wolf's back and lifts her high in the air.
"Well, hello sweet pea. You are the spitting image of your mama."
"Who are you?" She isn't afraid at all. Of course she isn't.
"I am your Uncle Jas. My wife, my siblings and I will be minding you and your brother until your mama is well again, okay?"
The other vampire stoops to kiss his son and check on the condition of his daughter-in-law before picking up his grandson. "She will be well. All will be as it should. You will come home. Both of you."
"Yes, sir." Edward's eyes sting. "I'm so sorry, Carlisle."
Carlisle places his hand on Edward's cheek. "I hope your children are just like you."
Edward laughs. "Is that a blessing or a curse?"
"Bit of both, I suppose. Where will you take her?"
"I don't know yet."
"Well, there's this amazing device called a telephone."
"Alice will see us."
It's time to go. Seth looks toward home.
"Thank you," Edward tells him. "And thank Jacob for me. And the silver wolf."
My sister, Leah. Remember what I said. Never come back.
"The treaty is over," Edward tells his sire, who nods and begins to walk away. "Carlisle, give my love to everyone. And tell my children our stories so they know me when we return."
Edward looks down at his mate and when he looks up again, they are alone. "Well, Wife, we can't stay here."
Bella's forehead furrows and she stiffens in pain. Edward knows how much it must hurt, how she must long for relief. Tenderly, he takes her up in his arms, strides into the great water and swims north, matching his strokes to the beat of just one drum.