Thrymheim Hold, the Northlands
Home of Skathi, goddess of the hunt
In ages long past . . .
Lucia the Maiden cracked open her eyes and found herself atop an altar, staring up at a furious goddess. Somehow her younger sister, Regin the Radiant, had found Skathi’s temple and had brought Lucia here.
From one altar to the next, she thought deliriously as her fever raged. Pain roiled inside her broken body. Her fractured limbs . . . never had she imagined such agony.
“You deliver this into my sacred place,” Skathi the Huntress of the Great North said to Regin, “and desecrate my altar? You court my wrath, young Valkyrie.”
Regin—all of twelve years old, with Lucia’s blood covering her glowing skin—said, “What can you do? Torture my sister? Murder her? She has already survived the first and is about to succumb to the second without your aid.”
“I could murder both of you.”
In answer, Regin pursed her lips, looking as if she were sizing up Skathi’s shins for a good kicking.
Lucia struggled for consciousness, labored to speak. “Don’t hurt her, please . . . my fault, my fault . . .” But her words were drowned out by a rumbling boom. This hold was carved into the heights of Godsbellow Mountain, shaken continually by thunder.
Skathi asked Regin, “Why bring her here?”
“Because you’re both neighbor and nemesis to the one who did this.”
Had interest flickered in the goddess’s eyes? “The Broken Bloody One?”
Canting her head at Regin in an appraising way, Skathi said, “You’re not even old enough to be a true immortal yet. For one so powerless and insignificant, you dare much, Valkyrie.”
“For Lucia, I dare this and more,” Regin answered proudly. “Best be forewarned.”
“Regin!” Lucia gasped. The girl had lost her mind.
“What?” She stomped her foot. “What’d I say?”
Instead of smiting Regin, the goddess impatiently gestured for her guards, the legendary Skathians. They were renowned archers, all females who underwent grueling training rituals to serve the goddess. “Take the glowing one down the mountain. Make sure she does not remember the way back.”
When Regin charged toward her, Lucia cried, “Nay, Regin . . . leave me!”
The Skathians snagged Regin around the waist, forcing her out as she flailed and shrieked, biting them.
Lucia heard one of them say, “Ow! You little ratling!” And then they were gone.
Skathi gazed down at Lucia’s battered face impassively. “You worry for her? When she has been spared? You, however, will not last the hour.”
“I know,” Lucia whispered. “Unless you help me.” She caught Skathi’s eyes as she pleaded—a mistake to look directly upon the great and terrible goddess. Meeting her fathomless gaze brought on the sorrow and fear of all her prey over the ages. It sank over Lucia like a bitter frost. “Please. . . .” When Lucia held up her crimson-stained hand in supplication, the wound across her torso she’d been holding welled with blood, flowing over her sides. A fountain of sticky warmth coated the altar beneath her, surrounding her battered body, but it quickly cooled on the chill stone.
Each drop lost left her shuddering harder, even more desperate. The pain of her injuries maddened her.
“You made your decision, Valkyrie,” the goddess said in answer. “And reaped what you sowed when you disobeyed those you were born to obey. Why should I help you?”
Because I’ve only lived sixteen years, Lucia thought, but she knew that wouldn’t sway Skathi, a timeless being who could scarcely comprehend death—or youth.
“Because I’ll do . . . whatever you ask of me,” Lucia said at last. The shuddering was getting worse; the altar beneath her was so cold. “P-pay any price.”
“If I saved you, I would impart my essence to you. A being like you would bear my mark of favor and be tied to the bow forever,” Skathi said, strolling to an opening overlooking her mountain, guarded by miles of deadly woods that swallowed unwary travelers. Lucia barely remembered traversing the mystical forest as Regin dragged her across portals and dales for days.
“Lucia, I’m taking you to Skathi!”
“She will . . . not help.”
“She will! The Skathians fight him every five hundred years. . . .”
Thunder boomed once more, the sound seeming to soothe the goddess. “Where my followers have sacrificed to become expert markswomen, you would simply be gifted with my hunting skills. An unequaled archer, better than them all. Why do you think you’re worthy of that? When they have trained so hard? When they are pure of heart—and body?”
The Skathians lived by an ascetic code—and despised men. I understand why now.
“They are not tainted as you are,” Skathi continued. “As you willingly offered yourself up to be.”
Dim memories arose of her last nine days as prisoner of Crom Cruach—the Broken Bloody One, a monster with the face of an angel. Had that animal bitten her? She refused to look down at her body, but she suspected he’d gnawed at her skin once she’d blacked out. And that she’d fought him before she’d mindlessly jumped from his lair—chunks of scaly flesh were still embedded beneath her claws.
Lucia ruthlessly stamped out those visions of her captivity. She would never let herself remember them, especially not that last night.
What happened in the dark. Blood streaming down my thighs.
“I didn’t know. . . . I never knew.” Regret washed over her. “I’ll s-sacrifice anything, Skathi.”
“Gifts from gods always come with a price. Are you ready to pay mine?”
Lucia nodded weakly. “I can become . . . p-pure hearted. And I’ll shun men.” She must know I’ll never be fooled again.
“Virgin from this day forward?” After a long moment, Skathi said, “You escaped the Broken Bloody One this time—courage, or cowardice, making you leap—yet Cruach will come for you in the next Accession if he escapes his jail.”
Yes, but by that time I’ll be truly immortal. I’ll run farther, faster.
“He shall merely do this again. Unless . . . you fight him.”
“I want to fight him.” She never wanted to see his hideous visage again.
“Every five hundred years, he would become your bane and you his jailer.”
“Let me live to face him.” Lying to a goddess? But Lucia was desperate.
Skathi’s face took on a thoughtful mien. “Yes, I have decided to heal you and make you an Archer—so long as you remain chaste. Yet any time that you miss a target, you shall experience the pain you are about to suffer. You shall always remember what brought you this low and never repeat this fall from grace. That will make you a Skathian.”
Dizziness overwhelmed Lucia. She was so confused. “About to suffer?” This torment could not be worse?
“Yes, pain to hone your mind. Agony to sharpen your resolve like a blade stone.” As she placed her milk-white hands over Lucia’s torso, Skathi murmured, “Ah, young Lucia, in the end, I believe you shall wish I’d let you perish.” The goddess’s palms began to glow with blue light.
Brighter, brighter. . . .
Suddenly Lucia convulsed, shrieking as her infected wounds pulled taut, purging blood and pus, her fractured bones grinding as they knit together. Her fingers clenched tight, her back arching—like a bow.
“You’ll be my weapon,” Skathi cried, her face becoming a frenzied mask. “You’ll be my instrument!”
On and on, the light burned, until abruptly there was none. Lucia was healed—but changed. A bowstring coiled around her body like a serpent. And in her trembling hands, a black ash bow and a single golden arrow had appeared.
“Welcome back to life—to your new life. You are now an Archer.” Skathi met her eyes, and Lucia felt the weight of overweening dread, just as a thousand other souls had before her. “And, Lucia, you shall forever be nothing more.”
“Munro, you daft git, pass the ball!” Garreth MacRieve yelled at his kinsman over the thunder and howling winds.
Tonight was their yearly skins-versus-demons rugby match—a tradition for Garreth and his clan, meant to take his mind from the anniversary this day marked. Garreth was barefooted, wearing only jeans and no shirt. Rain pounded in strengthening intervals, turning this abandoned grassy airstrip in bayou country into a mire of muck and turf. Sweat mingled with mud—and some blood.
He almost felt . . . not numb. And that in itself was a feat.
Munro flipped him off but did finally sling him the ball. The leather was coated in grit, mixing with the filth covering Garreth’s bared chest. He feinted left, then sprinted right around two colossal Ferine demons, shoving his hand in their faces, stiff-arming them.
As he ran, with his heart pounding in his ears, he could forget. The exertion and the aggression were both so welcome, he wanted to beat his bare chest.
The swift Ferines surrounded him, so he tossed the ball to Uilleam, Munro’s twin, who took it in to score. His brothers-in-arms were strong and ruthless contenders, as was he. The beasts inside them loved to fight, to play. Rough.
The demons responded to the goal with trash talk and shoving. Like a shot, Garreth was in the middle.
“You’re raring to fight for an heirless king,” Caliban, the Ferines’ leader, sneered. “Nothing new—you Lykae go through kings like I piss demon brew.”
Garreth saw red. Of all the sore subjects to bring up, his kingship was the one most infuriating. And on this day?
He launched himself at Caliban, but Munro and Uilleam heaved him back. As other demons steered Caliban away from the scuffle, Munro said, “Save it for the game, friend.”
Garreth spat in Caliban’s direction before letting the two lead him away to cool off. While Uilleam and Munro stayed with him, the other Lykae on the team made their way to the sidelines to mingle with the “cheerleaders.”
The demons took the opportunity to take a time-out and drink demon brew. The only bad thing about playing with demons—one of the few species in the Lore that could contend with the Lykae in a physical contest—was their continual “brew breaks.” Only seemed fair that Garreth and his kinsmen shoot copious amounts of whiskey to mitigate their advantage. They swilled it straight from the bottle, each one with his own, the Lykae version of Gatorade.
Their cooler was full of fifths.
“You’ve got to let this go, Garreth,” Munro said, taking a deep drink.
Garreth swiped his hand over the back of his neck, getting the feeling that he was being watched. But then, he and all the other players were. Nymphs lined the field, oblivious to the rain, touching themselves and sucking on their own fingers as they impatiently waited for this game to turn into an orgy.
He irritably gazed at the females. “Why’d you invite them?” he demanded. “Damn you both, I weary of this. Did you never think that I doona like nymphs?”
“Nay,” Uilleam said with a swig. “Any being that sports a penis likes nymphs.”
Munro drained his bottle and added, “You canna argue with medical facts.”
Garreth knew Uilleam and Munro meant well, but this was getting old. “I doona like them. They’re too . . . too . . .”
“Easy,” Garreth said. “They’re too easy. For once I’d like to have a female give me a challenge. One that would no’ fall into bed with me because I’m supposedly a king.” When
Munro opened his mouth to speak, Garreth said, “Aye, supposedly.”
Munro shook his head gravely. “And still you believe Lachlain will return.”
The three had been round and round about this for one and a half centuries, since the time his older brother had vanished after setting out to hunt vampires.
Uilleam and Munro told Garreth that he awaited Lachlain unreasonably. Best accept that his brother was gone, especially after so long had passed since his disappearance. One hundred and fifty years—to the day, this day. They said Garreth hadn’t moved on and accepted his responsibilities as king.
They were right.
“When will you believe he’s no’ coming back?” Uilleam asked. “Two hundred years from now? Five hundred?”
“Never. No’ if I still feel he’s alive.” Though vampires had killed the rest of his immediate family, for some reason, Garreth still sensed Lachlain lived. “No’ if I feel it as I do now.”
“You’re as bad off as Bowen,” Uilleam said, finishing his own bottle—and opening another.
Bowen was Garreth’s first cousin, a shell of a man since he’d lost his mate. He spent every waking moment in agony, yet he wouldn’t accept the loss and end his life as most Lykae males would have in his situation. “No’ like Bowen,” Garreth said. “He saw his mate gored, saw her death. I dinna see such proof with Lachlain.” No, I searched and searched and found . . . nothing.
“Game on!” a demon called.
Garreth shook himself from his memories, swigged whiskey, then mustered to the field with his kinsmen.
Caliban bared his fangs at his opponents, a gesture Garreth returned as the teams huddled up.
Quick snap. Ball in play. Passed to Caliban. Garreth saw his chance, charging for him, pumping his arms for speed . . . faster . . . faster. . . . He leapt for the demon, tackling him with all his strength.
As they careened to the ground, a length of Caliban’s horn snapped off, and he bellowed with rage. “You’re going to pay for that, Lykae!”
For miles, Lucia the Huntress had been stalking her night’s prey, growing increasingly perplexed when the tracks she followed led her closer to what sounded like a battle, echoing with roars and curses.
Mayhem? Without inviting the Valkyrie? And in our territory, too? If beings were going to trespass in order to war, they should at least have the courtesy to invite the host faction to the conflict.
When she came upon the battlefield, Lucia canted her head to the side. Clash of the Loreans, she thought as she beheld modern gladiators—not at war, but at play. Immortal rugby.
Winds whipped along the mile-long field, and lightning flashed above them, mirroring the intensity of the contest. It was like a ceremony celebrating . . . maleness.
Lucia easily recognized the horned players as demons, and she suspected their shirtless opponents were Lykae. If so, then the rumors were true. The werewolves were in fact encroaching on Valkyrie territory. She was surprised. In the past, they’d kept to themselves, staying at their sprawling compound outside of the city.
Congregating at the sidelines, Nymph spectators trembled with excitement, likely seeing this as no more than a mud-wrestling match between brawny heartthrobs.
A ruthless hit on the field made Lucia raise a brow. Not at the violence—she was a shield maiden after all—but at the unthinking violence. Though these Loreans all trespassed, they were oblivious to an Archer in their midst, one who could inflict serious damage—very swiftly and from a great distance.
Levelheaded Lucia, as she was now known, didn’t comprehend unthinking. But then she didn’t comprehend men. Never had.
Luckily for them, the only violence she’d deliver this eve would be to her targets: two kobolds—vile gnomelike creatures—who’d been seen stalking human young to feed on.
Her sister Nïx, the half-mad Valkyrie soothsayer, had dispatched her to these bayous to dispose of them. Lucia had asked Regin to join her, but she’d declined, preferring to play video games in the comfort of their coven over another “rain-drenched bug hunt.”
Lucia had jumped at the chance. After donning a T-shirt and hiking shorts, she’d strapped on her leather thigh quiver, archer’s glove and forearm guard. With her trusty bow in hand, she’d set out at once. . . .
Another brutal hit. She nearly winced at the impact from that one—a piece of horn skipped down the field like a lost helmet—but she wasn’t surprised. Lykae and demons were two of the most brutal species on earth.
Worse, one of those bare-chested males had caught Lucia’s attention. Completely. No matter how badly she wished it otherwise, Lucia still noted attractive men, and as the teams skirmished, she couldn’t help but appreciate the power in his towering frame, his speed and agility. Though mud splattered his torso and a shadow of a beard swathed his lean face, she still found him handsome in a rough and tumble way.
His eyes were a burnished gold color with rakish laugh lines fanning out from them. At one time, he’d been happy; he clearly wasn’t now. Tension radiated from his body, anger blazing off him.
When those golden irises flickered a bright ice blue, she confirmed what he was. A Lykae. A werewolf.
An animal. His handsome face masked a beast, literally.
“You call that a hit, you bluidy ponce!” he yelled at one of the demons, the muscles in his neck and chest standing out in strain as he bowed up and bared his fangs. His accent was Scottish, but then most of the Lykae were Highlanders—or they used to be, before homesteading southern Louisiana. “Aye, Caliban! Go fook yerself!”
Others were drawing him back from a particularly large demon, seeming exasperated, as if the male had been picking fights all night. Probably had. The Lykae were considered a menace in the Lore, with little control over their ferocity. In fact, they seemed to revel in it.
One hundred percent unadulterated male, alpha to the core. And still he was making her . . . lust. As the game continued, Lucia waited for revulsion to drown out her attraction. And waited.
Yet with each pitiless blow the male gave—and took—and with each of his growled threats and taunts, it burned hotter. Her breaths shallowed and her small claws went from straight to curling, aching to clutch a warm body to her own.
But when she remembered the last time she’d felt like this, a chill swept over her. She dragged her gaze from his antics and surveyed the nymphs frolicking on the sidelines. Lucia had once been like them—hedonistic, serving no higher purpose.
Am I still to be like them? No, she was disciplined now; she had a code. I’m a Skathian—by right of pain and the blood I’ve spilled.
With a hard shake of her head, she forced herself to focus on her mission—dispatching the kobolds. To the naked eye, they appeared cherubic, but they were actually ground dwellers with reptilian features. And when their populations went unchecked they tended to snatch human young, which jeopardized all of Lorekind.
The pair had split up, one of them fleeing deeper into the swamps, while the other hid behind the wall of nymph spectators, assuming itself safe in this crowd.
Lucia absently fingered the flights of the barbed arrows strapped to her thigh and savored the comforting weight of her bow over her shoulder.
Her prey assumed wrong. The Archer never missed.
- 2 -
Garreth swiftly broke away from the pack of demons at his heels, gaining more and more ground toward the goal. Rain pelted him as his speed increased.
This would be an easy score, taking him nearly the entire length of the field. Finally the demons pursuing him gave up, slowing one by one, hailing curses.
Yet then, in the most bewildering moment of his life, Garreth’s eyelids grew heavy and his dark claws bit into the ball he carried, puncturing it. As he inhaled deeply, he isolated a new, exquisite scent from a thousand threads of them—the coppery smell of lightning, cut blades of grass, the swampy bayous all around them. Sensations overwhelmed him, racking his muscles as he slowed.
Her. My mate. She’s near. . . . She was downwind but close enough that he detected her.
He didn’t know what she looked like, what her name was, or even her species. Yet he’d been waiting a millennium—his entire existence—for her. His head swung around in the direction of the scent.
A small female stood alone off to the side of the field.
At his first sight of her, his breath was lost, his Lykae Instinct roaring to life within him.
—Yours. Take her.—
She was half a mile or so away, but he saw her clearly through the rain, could make out every detail. She had pouting pink lips and flashing amber eyes. A black bow was strapped over her petite body, and she’d tied a leather quiver full of arrows to her thigh. Wee pointed ears poked out through her mane of long dark hair. Yes, mine.
Gods, she was as exquisite as her scent—
Wham! The demons tackled him with the force of a freight train, flattening him on the field, piling on top of him. His left shoulder popped from its joint. A knee to his jaw wrenched three back teeth loose. He growled, not with pain but with frustration, punching the still-hitting demons with his one good arm. As he battled to free himself, he sucked his teeth into his windpipe.
The twins ran to help him, finally peeling the demons off him. Garreth struggled to his knees, futilely coughing, hacking as he watched the strange female.
Suddenly, in a laserlike movement, she readied her bow, nocked three arrows from her quiver, and drew the bowstring to her cheek. What the hell? Everything happening so fast . . . Aiming for the nymphs? No, not them. A kobold cowering among them. Never hit it from so far away.
She was poised, motionless, for a shot. Though rain and wind whipped her hair over her cheek, she never blinked, never took her eye from her target even after she released that bowstring.
The arrows flew between two nymphs and sliced through the kobold’s neck, severing his head from his miniature body. A fantastical shot. Yet she appeared bored with the result.
Heaving, choking, Garreth saw her casually wend her way through the stunned nymphs.
Once she reached the two pieces of kobold, the archeress chucked them into the nearby swamp.
She replaced the bow over her body, then strolled back in the direction she’d come from. When she realized all attention was on her, she slowed. “Oh.” She gave them a Queen Elizabeth wave and said, “You may play on.”
As he wheezed and his cousins whaled hits on his back like anvil blows, she met Garreth’s gaze. He reached a muddy hand toward her, but she frowned with disdain, then disappeared into the brush. Finally Uilleam kicked Garreth in the back, and his back teeth flew from his windpipe like Chiclets.
“What in the hell’s the matter with you?” Munro demanded.
Between labored breaths, Garreth clambered to his feet. He’d been told what to expect when finding his mate, but never had he imagined the strength of his reaction. “It’s . . . happened.”
They knew immediately what he spoke of. Munro looked incredulous; Uilleam, jealous. How long had they both been waiting?
“The archer?” Uilleam asked. “Never seen anyone shoot like that. But she looked like she might be . . . a Valkyrie.”
Munro swore under his breath, “Bluidy bad luck.”
“Just force my shoulder back in place! Be quick, man!” Naturally, the first time Garreth encountered his mate—the one he’d awaited so long—she’d seen him calling his competitors pussies and playing by dirty rules. He was shirtless, well on his way to being drunk, and filthy with blood and mud. He wasn’t even wearing shoes.
And it probably appeared as if he’d been about to take part in an orgy.
“You tell no one of this,” Garreth grated.
“Why the hell no’?” Munro gave a hard yank on Garreth’s arm.
“Whatever she may be, she’s other,” he said. “And she’s to be the Lykae queen? No one knows, not until she’s marked and mated. Vow it!”
“Aye, then, we vow it,” Uilleam said.
The second they popped his shoulder back in, he took off at a sprint. —Track her. Claim.— With his Instinct louder and sharper than it’d ever been, he ran headlong through the rain.
He’d just been despairing over another year without his older brother, another year of royal responsibilities that he’d never thought would fall to him. On this day, the fates still refused to surrender Lachlain. But they’d given Garreth his mate in that ethereal creature.
As he charged forward, excitement welled within him, followed by overwhelming relief. With the way the rain had been pouring earlier, he could’ve missed her scent. Now he was on her trail.
Yet at the line of moss-curtained cypresses—the entrance to the most remote section of the swamp—he slowed. Somehow her scent was emanating from four different directions. He decided on one to follow, then thrashed through the brush, hurdling streams and bogs.
When he reached the source of the scent and there was no sign of her, he turned in place. Then gazed up to find one of her arrows lodged in a tree, so deep only the flights showed. And to those, she’d tied little bits of her T-shirt. Clever girl. She’d used her arrows to obscure her trail.
But he would follow each to the end, tracking her for as long as it took. She’d been born for him. And I was born to find her. . . .
Terrain passed beneath his feet for half an hour before he located her true trail. With the innate stealth of his kind, he prowled closer, hunting this huntress in the now drizzling rain.
The swamp made it easy for him to approach her undetected. There were a thousand shadows to conceal him, with animals constantly creeping about to distract her.
Once he spied her again, he just stopped himself from sucking in a breath. Up close, she was even lovelier than he’d thought her. She had to be a Valkyrie, one among a species of women both notoriously beautiful . . . and notoriously fierce.
Her features were stunning—high, bold cheekbones, plump lips, and a slim, pixie nose—but her coloring made her beyond compare. Her skin was golden and smooth, her eyes the color of Scots whiskey.
She was of middling height and curvy, wearing a wet white T-shirt that hugged generous breasts. Khaki shorts fitted tightly over her pert arse and displayed shapely legs. Her hair was long—a dark mane, heavy with rain.
On her right hand, she wore a leather shooting glove. A long leather forearm guard stretched from her left wrist to her elbow. Who knew archery gear could be so sexy?
His female would wear her leathers when he took her curvy wee body tonight. At the thought, his shaft hardened in his damp jeans, and he almost growled.
Instead, he silently followed her, watching as she closed in on the prey he’d already scented in the burrows beneath them.
If she were in fact a Valkyrie, she’d possess superhuman senses like his own—keen hearing and the ability to see in the dark or over long distances. Yet her sense of smell wouldn’t be nearly as developed as his. She’d need to track the creature by sight and sound—and she was doing so expertly.
But all the while she would freeze, jerking her head back in his direction, her pointed ears twitching.
Without warning, she leapt up into a waterlogged oak, crouching there as she resumed her shooting stance, nocking another arrow. From a distance, her short bow was unassuming, a recurve bow with the ends arching away from her, and a thickened grip in the middle. Typical, if old fashioned. But as he neared he could see there were etched gold markings in the polished black wood.
Her weapon was as fine and proud as its owner obviously was. . . .
She went motionless, aiming directly for where he’d scented her prey. Did she plan to hit it through the earth?
Aye, because in a reaper’s voice, she whispered, “Underground won’t save you.”
- 3 -
I can hear its breath, muffled now. Lucia knew the kobold had gone underground, scurrying for its life. She’d trailed it here, following the tracks, easily reading the signs that all prey left behind.
From this angle in the tree, she could shoot into the ground, piercing her arrow straight into the tunnel beneath. Her special arrow—it’d go in sleek and aerodynamic until contact, then it would release three razor-sharp barbs.
Soon she’d report two confirmed kills back to Nucking Futs Nïx. Just as Lucia always did. And then what? Then I’ll repeat days like this, over and over, until the Accession.
When the nightmares came.
For now, kill the kobold, go home.
Yet for some reason, instead of focusing on her target, she recalled broad shoulders and lean cheeks, remembering how the Lykae had looked at her just before he’d been tackled. He’d stared, heaving breaths with that barrel chest, sweat trickling down his muscled torso. Until he’d gotten flattened by some of the biggest demons she’d ever seen.
His interest had disconcerted her. In fact, all eyes had been on her—something that didn’t often happen since Lucia usually had the brazen, showstopping Regin the Radiant to distract notice from her.
But if anyone, including that male—who surely hadn’t been reaching for her with that grubby paw—had gotten curious and actually followed her, she’d taken care to cover her tracks.
Lucia shook her head hard, refocusing, inhaling a breath. Once she exhaled, she held herself motionless, sighting down the arrow’s length. The ancient inscriptions on her bow seemed to glow. . . .
She released the string. With a thunk, the arrow punctured the ground, boring deep, all the way to the kobold burrowed below. A muffled shriek sounded.
Target hit. Even underground, she’d nailed it. Not surprising—she hadn’t missed a shot in centuries. Skathi’s essence literally worked like a charm.
Lucia swung her bow back across her body, then leapt down to finish off her immortal prey with a swift beheading. It’s hard being this good, she thought as she sauntered to the spot of contact. It’s harder to act modest. She sighed. My cross to bear.
Three tenets comprised the Skathian code: honesty, chastity, and humility. She managed honesty—mostly—and chastity totally. But she couldn’t grasp the reasoning behind humility.
When she neared, the creature scurried in the tunnel beneath her feet, making the arrow shaft dart frenziedly in the mucky ground, which amused her.
This was her greatest pleasure—the hunt. When she was out like this, she felt less like an imposter, filled with shameful secrets. In these moments, she didn’t feel as if her sins were stamped upon her like a scarlet letter for all to see.
And she could briefly forget what would soon befall her in the approaching Accession.
Shaking away that thought, she crouched to dig free her prey, hauling it out by the ankle in a rush of mud and roots. Still in cherubic form, the kobold squirmed frenetically, her arrow jutting from its throat.
She dropped it to the ground and plucked free her arrow, taking half its neck with those barbs. The creature transformed, growing reptilian, with snakelike eyes and scaly skin.
When it snapped its now elongated fangs at her, she turned the arrow lengthwise, pressing the shaft down over what was left of its neck. As blood sprayed up her arms, she grinned. relishing her job as enforcer of laws.
Lucia had just beheaded the thing when her ears twitched with awareness yet again. Something’s watching me. She leapt back to her feet, eyes darting as she drew free her bow and nocked another arrow. Something close.
The male. She sensed it was him—but how had he gotten the drop on her?
She peered into the shadows and almost gasped when golden eyes glowed back. “Why are you following me?” she demanded. On occasion, she acted as a negotiator between factions because she was so patient and levelheaded—or so everyone thought. Perhaps he sought her help to solve some grievance.
The male stalked closer to her, ignoring the natural path, heading directly for her. A Lykae had made her the object of its interest. Never a good development.
“How could I no’ follow a lass as bonny as you?” he asked in a gravelly brogue. The mud had washed clean, revealing the perfection of his still-bare chest and torso and all the strong planes of his face. His chin was stubborn with a hint of a cleft, his skin tan, with those faint laugh lines etched beside golden eyes. Rain spiked his lashes.
His thick hair was wet and dark, whipping across his lean cheeks. She’d bet it’d be a rich brown when dry.
His gaze met hers for long moments before he leisurely took in every feature of her face. The way he looked at her was consuming, savoring—as if she were the most beautiful creature on earth and he’d been starved for the sight of her.
She frowned as a sense of awareness seemed to tingle through her every nerve.
When his gaze dipped to her body, he raised a shaking hand to run over his mouth, clearly liking what he saw.
What’s not to like— No! Act reasonable and serious. Above all things be rational. “Who are you?”
“I’m Garreth MacRieve of the Lykae clan.” He drew nearer and she sidled back. They began circling each other. “Never seen anyone shoot like you.”
That truly never got old. “Because no one can,” she answered matter-of-factly.
Had the corner of his lips briefly curled? “What devil did you make a deal with to shoot like that?”
She almost sighed. Devil? I did something entirely different with him. She stifled the memories that had begun to surface more and more often.
“Mayhap your bow’s enchanted?”
“My bow’s not enchanted—merely unequaled.” For over a thousand years, it’d held fast, as perfectly honed today as it’d been the night of Lucia’s transformation. The black ash wood was polished to a sheen and carved with elaborate inscriptions. In a long-dead language, it was written that Lucia was a servant to the goddess Skathi. Forever. “You don’t think mine could be a natural”—goddess-given—”talent?”
“Aye. But to marry talent and beauty such as yours as well? Hardly sporting to other lasses.”
She’d often thought so herself. Luckily for them, she had no interest in garnering a man’s attention.
“And you could no’ be bonnier.”
In fact, she could be. Her hair was drenched. Her clothes were boring—a serviceable pair of shorts and a plain T-shirt. She wore no makeup or jewelry, but then, she never did. Not since she’d started wearing the bow.
“Are you fey or Valkyrie?”
I’m an Archer. A celibate in plain clothes. A shadow in the background. “Guess.” At least he got points for not mistaking her for a nymph. Unfortunately, the two species resembled each other with their elven features. That was where all similarities ended.
“With the bow and the pointed ears, I’d normally say fey. But you’ve wee fangs and claws, so I fear it will no’ be so easy as that.”
“Easy? What are you talking about?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it, slanting his head at her in an appraising way. She sensed that whatever he’d been about to tell her, he decided against it, instead saying: “Seduction. Valkyrie are notoriously difficult to seduce.”
He wanted to seduce her? No talk of a date, of courting, just sex. Men! “Difficult, you say? If you’ve made a go at one of us in your current state—unshaven, bloody, half-dressed, and covered in mud—I just can’t imagine why. Not to mention that you smell of mash and distillery. Be still my heart.”
He scrubbed a palm over his face, seeming surprised to find stubble there. “Today is no’
a good day for me.”
“Then you should go back and enjoy your groupies. I’ve always heard that nothing brightens one’s outlook like an orgy with nymphs.” Why this sharp tone? As if she were jealous. A spark of disquiet arose in her.
“Doona want them.” He drew closer. “Even before I saw you.” He gazed deeply into her eyes, as if he could see through her chaste, ascetic shell and recognize how wild she truly was. As if he knew her façade was a shaky house of cards that could be felled with a touch.
You have a darkness in you, Lucia, Skathi had warned her eons ago. You must constantly be vigilant against it.
Yes, vigilant. Lucia needed to get home, away from this rumbling-voiced werewolf. A face like his had been her undoing once, a handsome face that had concealed a monster.
Just as this one’s did.
“The attraction isn’t mutual,” she said crisply. “So be on your way.” With that, she turned to dispose of her kill, intending to throw the pieces into the water for the animals there to feed on. When she bent for the kobold’s head, the Lykae picked up the body, as if he were being gentlemanly, retrieving a dropped handkerchief. So surreal. They lobbed the pieces into the murky water.
Her task done, she brushed off her hands and turned for home.
She stopped, glaring briefly at the sky before telling him, “Werewolf, save yourself both time and effort. Whatever is the opposite of a sure thing, that’s me.”
“Because I’m a Lykae?”
Because you’re a man. “You were right earlier—I am a Valkyrie. And my kind considers yours little better than animals.” They did. Though Lykae weren’t formal enemies like the vampires, older Valkyrie had battled them in the past, during bygone Accessions—faction-wide wars in the Lore. They’d said it was rare to see one fully turned unless you threatened their mate or offspring, but that even a hint of the beast that resided inside them was harrowing. . . .
So where was the conviction in Lucia’s tone?
“Aye, mayhap they do, but what do you consider me?” He narrowed his eyes. “Surely you doona agree with them or you would no’ want me to mate you now.”
Her lips parted. “Mate me? I’ve met arrogant males in my day, but you are the king of them.”
A shadow passed over his face. “The king, then? What a way of putting it.” But he quickly recovered. “Then give me a boon for taking the prize. Tell me your name.”
She exhaled grudgingly, then said, “I’m called Lucia the Huntress.”
“Lousha,” he repeated.
Everyone she’d ever known had pronounced her name Loo-see-ah. With his thick Scottish accent, the werewolf pronounced it Lousha. She just stopped herself from shivering.
“Well, then, Lousha the Huntress”—a roguish grin curled his lips—”you’ve snared me.”
Tingles danced over her body, but just as swiftly foreboding filled her. She had no business responding to him. He’d just left the nymphs and a guaranteed orgy; he would expect sex from a female this night.
Which she could never give—even if she wanted to—without disaster.
So why was her gaze descending along his damp chest? Her eyes followed the trail of hair from his navel down to the low-slung waist of his worn jeans, then lower . . . she almost gasped to see the bulge there.
She realized he must have been doing the same perusal of her—because the bulge grew.
She quickly glanced up, found the Lykae’s gaze was riveted to her breasts. Her nipples were straining against the wet material of her shirt, and he was staring hard at them as if he wanted to remove her top—with his mind.
When their eyes met once more, his flickered blue again, reminding her anew of why interacting with him was unwise. “Run along, wolf. Or I’ll make you wish you had.”
“That will no’ be happening, Valkyrie.”
“Why?” At his determined look, a suspicion arose in her, one so ridiculous it hardly warranted another thought. But she couldn’t shake it. “I’m not . . . your mate, or anything, right?” She couldn’t be.
“Nay. Though I might wish it otherwise.”
Thank the gods for that. “Then—leave.”
When he instead drew nearer, she yanked free her bow and nocked an arrow, drawing the string without thought. She aimed straight for his heart, which wouldn’t kill an immortal like him but would put him down for a good while. “Stop right where you are, or I’ll shoot.”
He didn’t stop right where he was. “You would no’. When I mean you no harm?”
“This isn’t an idle threat,” she said in a steely tone. His expression turned impatient, as if he couldn’t understand where her caution was coming from. “I will shoot you if you come closer.”
He came closer. So she shot him in the heart. Or four inches to the right, having decided at the last second to vary her aim by a degree.
The arrow landed in his solid chest, drilling through his muscles until only the flights were visible. “Bluidy hell, woman!” he bellowed, scowling down at his chest.
In a placid tone, she reminded him, “I told you not to come closer.”
He fisted the flights, trying to draw the arrow free, but those barbs made it impossible. Reaching around awkwardly, he grated, “Help me get this thing loose!”
She blinked up at him. “I put the arrows in. I don’t take them out.”
His chin jutted. “You do with me.”
The corners of her lips quirked, surprising her. What a wild, mad Lykae. She schooled her features. “Why would I ever?”
“Because, Valkyrie”—he started for her again, apparently planning to ignore the arrow in his chest—”by the close of this night we’ll be sharing a bed, and you’ll feel foolish to have shot up your bedmate.”
With a sigh, she let sail another arrow. “Oh, dear, how foolish of me. You were saying?”
He continued closer. “When I set to kissing those pouting lips of yours—”
Another arrow sunk into his chest.
Now three wounds marred his gorgeous body, three trails of blood tracking over the rises and falls of rock-hard muscle. Gritting his teeth, he said, “This hurts like hell, lass, but it’s heartening.”
“How do you figure?”
“At twenty times the distance, you dispatched that kobold with three arrows to the neck. I’ve earned a trio to the chest. Seems you slapped him while you’re tickling me. You doona want to kill me, which is a good sign. Maybe this is your way of flirting?”
She sobered once more, reality washing over her. “I’m not flirting—trust me, you’d know.”
Because disaster would be imminent. Damn it, he kept coming for her.
“If you’re truly a hunter, you will no’ leave a wolf to suffer. I’ll bet you usually shoot to kill—no’ merely to torment.”
He had a point. It wasn’t in her nature to torture a being. Unless they had it coming. “Oh, very well. If I help you remove them, will you leave me alone?”
“Leave you alone? I’d rather bluidy wear them, Valkyrie.”
With that, he slammed his fist against the end of the first arrow, sending the shaft jutting farther out his back. He reached behind him, now able to just snag the tip. Clenching his jaw, he threaded the arrow through his chest, the flights disappearing beneath the surface of his skin as he pulled it out from his back.
While she gaped at his resilience, he cast the bloody arrow aside, then started on the next, repeating the process. With each one, the muscles in his body went tense. Once the arrow was freed, he groaned and relaxed—somewhat. Almost as if he’d taken sexual release but wasn’t sated.
A part of her was almost flattered that he’d rather go through this than receive her help.
She could’ve snapped the ends, allowing him to pull them forward, but instead he withstood this pain—because he didn’t want to leave her alone?
His strength amazed her, his fortitude imposing. That awareness returned, and her skin pricked in the clammy night air.
When he began removing the last arrow, he advanced on her once more, tearing it free as he stalked closer, barely giving a wince, that determined mien never faltering.
She took a step back, debated using her one remaining arrow to put him down. She couldn’t kill him, but she could slow him with a shot between the eyes.
“I believe I’ve earned the right to stay—as well as a kiss from you.”
She made a sound of frustration. “As if you’d be happy with a kiss? You expect to have sex with me and it simply will not happen—”
“But you want it to, do you no’?”
To have him take her here, hot and sweaty in the swamp? She swallowed. He was a Lykae—he’d want her on her hands and knees . . . Her heart sped up at the thought, but she shook her head stubbornly. “Of course not! Understand me, MacRieve, I’m a Valkyrie. I’m not bound by your . . . animalistic needs.”
His voice a low rasp, he said, “After one night with me, Lousha, you will be.”