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New Epilogue for The Archer

“They will pay. All of them will pay.”

Mac shoved at a spindly, brittle tree branch that barred his way, snarling when it refused to yield. The forest had turned against him, just like his people. Every twig stabbed at him, every trunk loomed in his path, thick leaves blocking the moonlight, leaving him fumbling around in the dark. The bruises that marred his body made every step more difficult than it should have been, every physical pain a reminder of a grasping hand pulling him from his horse, a tug at the rope binding him—

He shouted, a raw, ragged sound, and gripped the wood at the base of the offending limb, tearing it back and forth with all the strength he had left in his body until a satisfying crack broke the still night air. The broken limb hung in his grip and he threw it violently to the side before continuing his march back to his home.

“I had him.” He looked down at his hands. He’d removed the claws and the blood before going into the village, but if he looked at them now, he could still see the curved iron, feel the tackiness of the sidhe’s blood. “I had him weak and bleeding, ready to suffer for his crimes.” Another branch reached out to slap him, striking him across the face with a fistful of leaves and leaving tiny scratches in its wake. Mac screamed and snatched a handful of the offending greenery from its branch, stopped walking to shred them into tiny pieces, wishing he could do the same to Robin Hood and every man and woman who had helped him escape this night.

“Grab him!”

“Get him off the horse!”

“Hold him!”

The voices echoed in his head, accompanying the memory of the mob rushing out of the forest to surround his horse, bows and arrows trained on him, torches flaring to life in a circle of flames. Hands on his arms and legs, pulling him down, binding him with rope as he bellowed his rage into their anonymous, hooded faces.

“I will figure out who they were,” he rasped, “and I will find them all. I will make them pay.”

His people. The people he served, protected, fought to save from the fickle whims of the fey. They had turned on him, surrounded him on the road as he left Robin behind, left to prove the sidhe wrong, prove that his people saw him for the protector he was and not the madman Robin claimed him to be.

It had been Robin’s doing. He knew it. He had poisoned the people against him, paid for their loyalty with stolen gold. The fury inside him climbed higher, threatening to spill out his mouth in an unholy howl. He pivoted, changed direction to go to the pit instead of straight to his cabin.

He will not be there. He is gone. Or maybe he isn’t. Maybe the wolves were not worthless tonight, maybe they held him here, kept away those who would have—

The pit yawned before him like the mouth of a great beast, and Mac didn’t need to look inside to know it was empty. The iron grate that should have covered it lay at an angle, slanting into the pit to form a perfect staircase. The wolves were nowhere to be seen.

Mac approached the pit one shaking footstep at a time, needing to look inside even though he knew there was no possibility that his prisoner was still there. The sight of the pit’s floor, bare of any living thing, sliced through him like a fire-heated blade.

His head fell back, mouth opening to loose a scream at the sky, a sound of pure rage. He was making himself a target, alerting any manner of creature that may be lurking near of his presence, but he didn’t care. Let it come, let them come. Fey blood was just the thing he needed to wash away the remains of this night.

Nothing stopped him on his rampage back to his cabin, no goblin coming for its pound of flesh, or siren singing for his soul. Adrenaline soaked his veins, filled him with the need to destroy something, to make something or someone pay for the disaster this night had become.

It took him three tries to open his door, to convince his body to grasp the handle and turn it without ripping it off or smashing his way through the wood. He couldn’t hear anything over the rush of his own blood, and it wasn’t until he’d stumbled into a room that should have been dark and blessedly quiet, that he realized something was wrong.

There was a fire crackling in the hearth. Cheery flames licking at a pile of logs that looked to have been burning for at least an hour. The blankets had been dragged from his bed and now lay in a thick pile in front of the flames, couching the two wolves who should have been guarding the pit. They lay curled in a pile of fur, their chests rising and falling with the slow, steady rhythm of deep sleep. Their legs were dressed in clean bandages and even from here Mac could smell the thick herbal poultices pressed into the wounds beneath the gauze.

The urge to scream at them, to grab their sleeping bodies and hurl them out into the cold night to sleep like the worthless dogs they were tingled in his muscles, but he neither moved nor spoke. Even through the chaos in his tormented mind, one cold, hard fact remained. The wolves could not have made that fire.

“Good evening, Sheriff Mac Tyre.”

The voice was cool, a subtle breeze that slid through the heat of the room to send a chill down Mac’s spine. His hands dropped to his sides, but he had no weapon. His dagger had been taken from him, ripped from its sheath by one of the masked traitors. Renewed anger chased away the fear and he faced the direction of the voice with his spine straight, fingers curled. A chuckle fluttered up his chest, spilled from his lips. He would tear the intruder apart with his bare hands.

Even when he faced the direction of the voice, it took him a moment to see the speaker. He stepped out of the corner, shadows trailing behind him, stirred by the hem of his black cloak. His footsteps were silent, his tall frame moving with eerie grace. Firelight played over pale features, lighting up the blue eyes that watched him with the steady intensity of a bird of prey. A lock of white-blond hair shifted within the hood of the cloak as the man tilted his head.

“My dear sheriff, you do not look well.” His voice was the same soothing tone it had been a moment ago. “Do sit down by the fire. Warm yourself.”

“It is a dead man you are for entering my home without permission.” Mac took an unsteady step forward, ready to wake the worthless wolves if he needed to.

A strange smile pulled at the stranger’s mouth and for just a second Mac swore he saw a hint of fangs. Mac paused. Fangs. Vampire? Were there vampires here? He raised his hands to his temples, pressing against them to try and ease the throbbing headaches threatening to split his skull. He had to think. He was missing something, something important.

“It pains me to see you this way,” the stranger said, a disapproving set to his jaw. “And it would be best for our conversation if you were thinking with a clear head.”

There was movement, a flutter of blond hair. The glint of a silver blade. Mac instinctively drew back, his eyes struggling to process the world around him. One minute the vampire was standing before him, shrouded in endless black waves. Then the creature vanished all together. Something pulled hard against his neck, followed by the faint hiss of severed leather. The pressure vanished. He instinctively grabbed for the iron medallion, his source of protection.

It was gone.

Mac hissed and stumbled back. Black fabric skirted around the stranger’s legs as he towered next  to the fireplace, looking for all the world like he hadn’t moved. He held Mac’s medallion in front of the firelight, the necklace’s leather twine wrapped around his black-gloved first, metal swaying back and forth like a pendulum.

“I understand the desire to protect yourself against the tricks of you enemy, sheriff, but really, you must weigh the benefit against the cost.” He cupped the metal in the palm of his hand, looking from it to Mac. “It pains me to see what wearing that little piece of jewelry has done to you. You are a better man than this.”

“The iron.” Mac whispered the word without thinking, staring as the stranger tucked it into some hidden pocket beneath his cloak. “I’d forgotten…”

Like a drunk waking the morning after taking on a bottle too big for him, he felt both better and worse without the iron resting against his chest. Better because he could think without the warm fog in his head, the buzzing he’d ceased to notice. Worse because without the semi-madness the piece of metal had sent him into, he had nothing to distract him from the headache that threatened to spill him onto the floor in an undignified heap. His hands rose to press against his temples, trying to ease the throbbing that pounded with unforgiving violence against his skull.

“If it would help, I could pour you a drink?” the stranger offered.

“I don’t drink,” Mac mumbled. He took a deep breath, held it, then released it slowly before meeting the stranger’s eyes. “Who are you?”

“I am Kirill of Dacia.” He inclined his head slightly in a shadow of a formal greeting.

Mac stiffened, then winced as the headache punished him with a brain-numbing throb. “The vampire prince?”

One white-blond eyebrow rose. “If you prefer. Yes.”

The poker next to the fireplace was the closest weapon. Mac lowered his hands from his head, rubbed them together as if suddenly cold. He took a few slow, but steady steps toward the fireplace, palms facing the warm glow. His heart pounded harder, but this time it had nothing to do with his body’s attempts to recover from the iron exposure. “And what brings Your Highness to my humble abode?”

His voice came out blessedly calm, and the vampire showed no sign that he’d picked up on his intentions concerning the poker.

The vampire stepped back, yielding the fireplace to Mac. “I’ve come to make you an offer. I’m an admirer of your work, and I believe that together we could accomplish great things.”

Mac mentally mapped out the vampire’s position as he shifted closer to the poker leaning against the left side of the stone hearth. He tried to remember everything he knew about vampires, but his thoughts were still sluggish and he had no personal experience with the undead to draw on. “What kind of offer?”

“It has come to my attention that you may be interested in relocating. What with the woods around this charming home being infested with a certain sidhe, and now your own populace having somewhat lukewarm feelings about you—”

Mac snatched up the poker, swinging it around then thrusting toward the vampire’s chest with all his strength. It met empty air. Growling as he tried to recover his balance, Mac pivoted in mid-motion searching the room for his target. He had to get his back to the wall, close off possible—

A hand closed around the poker, tore it from his clammy grip. His heart leapt into his throat as he fisted his empty hand, feeling the absence of the poker like a physical loss. Metal clattered against the floor as the weapon was hurled across the room, and it took Mac a few seconds of frantic searching to spot the vampire leaning against his work table.

At the sudden clamor, the silver wolf lifted an ear, one eye cracking open before rolling back. The ear relaxed as sleep dragged the wolf out of the fight before it could even commit to entering it.

Mac parted his lips to scream at the animals to wake and come to his defense, but before he could form the words, red eyes filled his vision. He sucked in a breath and stumbled a step back. They stood barely an arm’s length apart, Kirill’s eyes glowing softly as if they’d been carved from the fire’s embers, and try as he might he couldn’t seem to look away.

“Listen to me, Mac Tyre,” Kirill said softly. “Look at me, and listen very carefully.”

The chaos writhing like a swarm of insects in Mac’s mind quieted. Soothing calm rolled over him like warm rays from the summer sun. It soaked into his muscles, loosening the knots there. His shoulders sagged, releasing the tension that had twisted his nerves into so many knots.

“You have a cunning mind, and the courage to go against forces that would seem insurmountable to lesser men,” Kirill said quietly, his voice soothing, but firm. “You have the potential within you to do great things, to be a force to be reckoned with.” He narrowed his eyes. “But you are losing that. This pathetic crusade you’ve waged against Robin Hood is beneath you, a petty squabble that grew beyond your control. You’ve let him make a fool of you, let him take away the very mind that allowed you to become a threat to him in the first place.” He took a step back, shook his head. “Wearing iron without respite. It is a wonder you can hold two thoughts together anymore.”

“I’m hearing no offer.” Mac’s voice was calm, and the difference between the voice passing his lips now and the one he’d used to curse the world on his mad dash through the forest shocked him. He stared at the vampire and the weight of the truth he’d spoken finally settled.

Kirill seemed to notice the moment the realization dawned. “Yes. You can see it now?”

Mac closed his eyes. Some part of his mind that had just woken up whispered its surprise that he wasn’t completely enthralled by the vampire, could still choose to close his eyes and block out that steady crimson stare. Careless, that’s what he’d been. But no more.

He took a deep breath, slowly pulling himself back together, settling his mind and looking at his situation reasonably, logically. He turned to face the fire as he opened his eyes, striding to take the seat by the fire and simultaneously looking away from the vampire’s gaze. He plucked at a few twigs and leaves still clinging stubbornly to his clothes, casting them into the fire without looking at his company. “What is your offer?”

“I want you to work for me.” There was satisfaction in Kirill’s voice now, a respect that hadn’t been there a moment ago. “I have a small group of individuals that I employ for a variety of tasks better kept out of the public eye.”

Mac studied a leaf he’d just pulled from the crease of his shirt. “Assassins?”

“Sometimes. But more often than that, they are my eyes and ears.” He slid around the sleeping wolves to stand near the fire opposite Mac. “You see, sheriff, like you, I believe that there is more to running a kingdom than keeping the human population in check. There are other creatures, creatures whose societies do not police their behavior as well as perhaps they should. Sometimes these creatures need to be punished and in some cases, they need to be…reasoned with. Some of them can be rehabilitated, recruited to do some good for the community they haunt.”

He stood before Mac, but didn’t try to make eye contact. “I want you to lead that group. You will perform duties much like you do here. You will send out spies, gather information, analyze it. You will identify threats, determine which of them can be recruited and which cannot. You will report to me and tell me which threats require immediate attention and which ones should be watched.”

Mac flicked the leaf into the fire then drummed his fingers against his thigh, staring into the flames. Part of him wanted to reject the vampire’s offer immediately, without consideration. This was his home, Scythia was his home. He had duties here, plans.

The memory of the mob that had sacked him on the road floated into his mind. Anger heated his blood and the headache pulsed with new life in his temples, stabbing at his brain. He concentrated on keeping his breaths even, on forcing his heart rate to slow. This was no time to let anger make his decisions for him.

“Then why are your people terrified of you? Look into their eyes and speak with them. See if they see you as the protector you fancy yourself to be.”

Robin was right. Damn his eyes, but he was right. He’d lost control, allowed his desire for revenge to consume him and in doing so had lost his way, lost the reputation that had made him valuable to his people. They were afraid of him now. Afraid enough that they’d obviously sided with Robin against him, had hid their faces and attacked him like forest rabble.

He could rebuild his reputation. It would take time, but he was a patient man. But did he want to?

“What kind of resources would I have as a member of this…team?”

“Your resources would be unlimited. As long as you are successful, I will supply you with whatever means you deem necessary to do your job.”

The possibilities stretched before him, opening up a whole new world. A chance to fight for true justice, and to fight it on a level playing field. Well, as level as the playing field could get when it was human against monster.

“I accept your offer.” He looked at Kirill, but avoided his eyes. It was difficult to convey confidence while he was forced to stare at the vampire’s forehead, but caution was called for. At least until he’d had time to refresh his knowledge of the undead.

Kirill smiled, and there was a strange satisfaction there, as if he’d noticed Mac’s precaution and approved. Before Mac could decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing, the vampire spoke.

“There is one more thing.”

Suspicion seized his muscles, sent a sharp spike up the back of his neck into his head. Mac clenched his teeth, struggling to keep the pain from his face. “And what is that?”

Metal clinked against metal as Kirill removed something from his cloak, held it in front of Mac. Leather straps connecting smooth, curved iron tips.

“My claws.” Mac frowned and leaned forward before he could stop himself.

“Yes.” Kirill eyed the contraption with expression of a jeweler examining a competitor’s piece. “You miss being a wolf.”

Memories flooded over him, memories of running on four legs, of living in a world rich with scents. Prowling the forest like a shadowy guardian, isolating threats to his people and dealing with them with tooth and claw. The satisfaction in the primal simplicity of it, the power and confidence that came from proving himself in bloody physical combat. The unique gratification of eating his prey. “It was…efficient,” he said finally, his voice rough with yearning for that simpler time.

“What if I could give that back to you? Give you the best of both worlds so that you could be wolf or man at your discretion?”

“You can do that?” Mac met the vampire’s eyes before he could stop himself, needing to see if he was serious.

The eyes that had glittered with crimson minutes ago were once again a frosty blue, clear and perfectly serious. “I can. That is, with your permission?”

Mac tried to hold onto reason, to remain cautious and think through what the vampire had said, think through what his offer might mean. But he was already standing, already taking a step forward, eager to claim that offer before it could be snatched away from him. “Yes.”

Something clicked on the wooden floor beside him. A familiar sound. Claws on the worn planks. Mac pivoted in time to see a brown wolf disengage itself from the furry pile in front of the fire. His lips parted in surprise, then his jaw tightened as he realized how careless he’d been, how oblivious. How had he missed a third wolf?

The creature was beautiful, brown silky fur over a long, lean body. Like his wolves, this beast was larger than most, obviously something more than normal. Golden eyes stared at him and even though there was no tension in its body, no threat, there was something in those eyes that was not entirely friendly.

“It would be best if you try to relax,” the vampire suggested.

“Relax?”

Mac only took his eyes off the wolf for a second, but apparently that was all it took. Pain seized his arm, sharp teeth sinking into his flesh. Mac shouted in surprise and pain and pulled, trying to tear his arm away from the wolf gnawing on it with single-minded intensity. The beast released him, leapt back before he could even think of striking out with his booted foot. It lowered its body, baring bloody teeth at him in a snarl.

“Was that strictly necessary?” Kirill asked, his voice dry.

The wolf slanted those golden eyes to the vampire and snorted. The silver wolf shifted in its sleep and the brown wolf ceased its snarling, whirled away from Mac and Kirill to trot over to the other wolves. It licked the top of the silver wolf’s head like a mother caring for a pup, leaving a wild tuft of fur protruding between its ears. The wolf settled again, body growing slack with sleep. The brown wolf gave it one more lick then spared a glare for Mac before trotting out of the room in the direction of his bedroom.

“You’ll have to forgive Loupe.” Kirill drew a handkerchief from his cloak, stepped forward to offer it to Mac. “She is something of a protectress of wolves and I’m afraid she’s not terribly pleased with the state of your care for your four-legged friends there.”

Mac stared down at his arm where the wolf had bitten him, trying to reconcile what had just happened with what the vampire was saying. Blood trickled over his skin, soaking the torn material of his black shirt. He took the handkerchief the vampire offered and pressed it to the wound to staunch the bleeding. “What are you talking about?”

“He’s talking about the fact that those wolves could have lost their legs thanks to the abominable care they received from the man in charge of their well-being.”

The woman’s voice was soft, but firm, the voice of a mother who doesn’t want to wake sleeping children, but also wants you to know she is not pleased. Mac narrowed his eyes at the woman standing in the doorway. Her blonde hair fell loose about her shoulders, framing a delicate face with bright green eyes. Those eyes caught the firelight and threw it back at him in glittering shards as she gave Mac a severe look then deliberately marched over to where the two wolves were sleeping. She lifted the skirts of her pale blue dress and knelt down, stroking their fur and murmuring to them. The wolves stirred faintly, but she hushed them, tenderly checked the bandages over their wounds.

“Sheriff Mac Tyre, allow me to introduce Princess Loupe of Sanguennay.” Kirill gestured at Loupe. “Loupe, this is Sheriff Mac Tyre.”

“I know who he is, Kirill,” Loupe muttered. “We discussed this before he arrived.” She stood from her spot by the wolves and faced Kirill with her arms crossed. “Had I known before I agreed to this bargain how he treated his charges, I might have made a different decision.”

“You made the right decision,” Kirill assured her smoothly. “And fifty of your wolves will thank you for it. As agreed, you may begin relocating them to the dark forest at your convenience. Do try to keep them within the allotted area we discussed, as I cannot speak for their safety if they should wander too close to the mountains.”

The conversation didn’t seem to require his participation, so Mac concentrated on his arm and the pain…

He paused, frowned. But there was no pain. He lifted the handkerchief and studied the bite mark. The edges of the wound were already a shiny pink, and the bleeding had stopped. Moonlight shone through the window, and Mac stepped closer to the silver light without thinking.

His headache was gone. He felt…stronger.

“How do you feel, sheriff?” Kirill asked. His voice was even, just an edge of curiosity.

“Better,” Mac breathed. He looked away from his wound, looked at the woman he was now certain was the brown wolf that had bitten him.

Loupe dropped her arms to her sides and took a step closer to him. “Kirill says you were a wolf before. You remember the change?”

“I remember.”

“I can help you through it if you like,” she offered gently.

Mac closed his eyes, already reaching inside himself, searching. There. “No,” he whispered. “I am…all right.”

“Loupe is a loup garou,” Kirill told him, coming to stand next to Loupe. “A type of werewolf who can pass on the change through her bite. You are not what you once were, you will not change permanently to a wolf for a set period of time. You will be able to go back and forth between forms, but you must use caution.”

“Biting someone alone is not enough to infect them,” Loupe added. “You must intend to infect them. Loup garous are more magic than lycanthropes. There is much even I don’t understand yet.”

Mac laughed softly. The sound started out small, a chuckle that rose from somewhere inside him, caressed his insides as it rose to spill out his lips. Something came with that laugh, a spirit or form that hadn’t been there before. Mac welcomed it, embraced it. The spirit washed over him and as it rose, his muscles melted into something soft and malleable, his bones turning to liquid, flowing in different directions before hardened, becoming stronger.

“Astounding,” Kirill said, a trace of awed respect in his tone.

Mac blinked, momentarily disoriented by the change in his perspective. He was no longer standing before Kirill as a man, but rather on all fours as a wolf. Black-furred legs met his eyes, his own body a strange sight. He raised his head, sniffed the air. The scents of the world exploded around him in a palette that put what he’d been used to in his human form to shame. The vampire before him was a mixture of stone, blood, and the crisp scent of snow. The fire crackled with the smoky tones of burning pine, a flicker of a heavier scent—the oak leaves and twigs he’d cast of his clothes. The wolves…

Mac padded over to where they lay in a pile. He could smell their wounds now, smell the faint traces of infection beneath the healing paste of the herbs. Shame weighed his body down and he lowered his body to the floor and curled up against Sienna’s side, offering warmth to the side of her that faced away from the fire.

“They’ll be fine.”

Loupe knelt beside him, and her voice was gentler now. Mac didn’t know if it was the fact that he was now a wolf, and thus qualified to be on her good side, or if she’d somehow sensed the change in him, sensed his regret. He rested his head on his paws, letting his thoughts settle.

Loupe stood and faced the vampire. “He doesn’t seem to require my help. If our business is concluded, I’ll be going home to my husband now.”

“The gargoyle will see you home,” Kirill responded politely. He cleared his throat. “It may behoove us both if you would bathe before seeing your husband to avoid carrying the scent of our meeting. I do not think he will be as pleased with our bargain as we were.”

“I will not,” Loupe snapped. “I have no intention of hiding this from him. We needed that land for the wolves, and I fail to see what harm could come from having another loup garou around.”

Mac arched a lupine eyebrow at that, rolling his eyes to look at the vampire. The woman had a kind heart, and was obviously a force to be reckoned with when she was protecting wolves. But she clearly didn’t have a head for strategy.

Kirill met his eyes for a brief second and then smiled at Loupe. “You’re right of course. Enjoy your evening, and tell Etienne I said hello.”

 


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