“Gus, may I speak to you?”
All of the men stopped their sparring when she entered the courtyard, dropped to their knees, and bowed their heads.
She nodded to Gus and he stood again, slowly. The others followed, watching her from the tops of their eyes, each in his own way. Begley was the only one who did not look at her, but stared at the far wall, a bitter draw to his face. They hadn’t spoken since he’d begun training, neither of them had tried. And it was clear to Fee that Begley thought she should be the one to approach him. In the strictest sense, he was correct. Begley could request an audience with her, but it wouldn’t precisely be proper. Now that he was placed in the hierarchy, instead of being on the outside of it, everything had changed. They all knew it.
With her wedding to Brogan only three weeks away, a shift had occurred among the males around her, as though they had been given permission to view her as a woman, not that anything but her odd behavior and intense demeanor had stopped them before. Strangely, in the month since they’d been to see Aislinn, Caoinlin’s behavior had only become odder and her demeanor so intense Fee could hardly bring himself to speak first. Not
Gus cleared his throat and seemed to struggle with his voice, as if it were a pig he wrestling to the ground.
“Certainly, Your Majesty,” he said, strangled. Then in a sudden bellow at the men, “Get back to it!”
The men jumped back into sparring. Callan knocked Begley on the back of the head with his staff to get the boy’s attention.
Caoinlin stepped back into the shadowed hall, though the doors remained open to the courtyard. The clatter and clamor of weapons and men grunting and huffing echoed around them.
Caoinlin was taller than Gus, but since he kept his face pointed at the floor, he looked even shorter. Fee met the old champion’s eyes and Gus blinked a few times, startled and then looked up at Caoinlin. In his throttled voice, he asked,
“How may I serve, Your Grace?”
Caoinlin squared her shoulders and the softened edges in Gus’ black eyes faltered and he seemed to not know how to look at the princess.
“When I was a child, you took leave from my father’s guard for a time.”
Gus squinted at Caoinlin. “With his blessing.”
“I heard tale that you traveled to the eastern kingdoms and met steel with the foreign invaders.”
“You offered a brief allegiance to a king there.”
Gus crossed his arms and cocked his head.
“What was his name?” Caoinlin asked.
“Lucan, of Greensea.” The champion’s voice loosened and toughened.
“The kingdoms along the troubled coast, they take on many mercenaries to fight the invaders?”
“They must also join forces to defend their lands?”
“When you fought with Greensea, did you fight with men from other kingdoms?”
Gus shifted his weight uneasily. “Why does Your Highness ask?”
Caoinlin went still. She stared at Gus for a long time, until the old champion’s eyes began to water and his thick silver brow broke inward. Only then did she speak.
“Great Champion,” she said, “you have served the house of Redthorn faithfully and with untarnished honor.”
Sweat beaded on his leathery face, the champion regarded the princess, trepidation apparent.
“Which kingdoms?” she asked again.
Gus scratched as the rough silver stubble on his square face and heaved a deep sigh.
“Leafwhite, Yellowtree, Lakegreen,” he cleared his throat again, “Violetstorm, Graycliff, Blackstone—”
“Who is the king there?”
Gus took another longer breath. “Tireachan.”
“Tell me about him.”
Gus scowled. “He’s not one to be trifled with.”
“His kingdom, it suffers greatly from the invaders?”
“Ya,” Gus said, “It had, more than any other.”
“But no longer?”
“Last I heard, Tireachan built fortifications along his coastal boarders,” Gus said, “Blackstone juts into the sea. They control the only navigable waterway channel between our country and the wild lands to the north. His army is the greatest in the land. He recruited tribal men from the wilds. Blood-drinkers. They collect the eyes of the men they kill and can make them like stone, they wear them around their necks.”
If Gus was trying to frighten Caoinlin, he failed.
“How can he control such men?”
Gus’s whole face scowled. “He is king.”
“He must be a formidable king.”
“Ya, the most.”
“And the knights who serve him must also be fierce.”
“Not fierce, my lady. Matchless. Made of sinew that can only be wrought in men who must fight every day to survive. To them and their people have been done the worst of what man is capable of inflicting upon another man. I dare not speak to you the atrocities they have suffered. If Tireachan’s men were not engaged with the invaders, his army could defeat every kingdom in this land. But now that his son has been killed by those bloody—” Gus’s teeth clicked together audibly, biting off the curses he’d been about to unleash. His nostrils flared, expelling a fraction of his rage. “Tireachan will pursue the marauding scum all the way back their homelands.”
Caoinlin’s tone dropped to a near whisper. “His son was killed?”
“Ya, by Arthor himself.”
Fee trembled and grew dizzy.
“They say there was nothing left of him to be found.”
Caoinlin cleared her throat. “Do you know his son’s name?”
“Ya. A worthy name, for he was the best of princes. He fought in many battles and won many victories. He defeated and turned back Arthor’s army more than once. He even bested the Marauder King, though the scum fled and survived to hunt the prince down, but he has still earned his name, ‘the battle king’. Fiachrin.”
Caoinlin inhaled sharply. Fee could do nothing, say nothing. He was immobilized by the curse. His mind too flooded by memories, by longing, by fury.
“When was he killed?” Caoinlin’s voice strained.
“Many years ago, six or seven. When I fought with his father’s men he was but a boy. I would’ve been honored to die with the man I am told he became. I’m told his father’s grief is unbearable. Fiachrin was his only child. Some say he was a fool to allow the boy to fight, but when a man is born a warrior, it is not a fate that can be disallowed. He that must fight, must fight. Look at the stable whelp there.” He flung a meaty arm toward the door where Begley trained. “Born from nothing, into nothing, but in him is a warrior. He will earn his honor. I would not be surprised if he crosses this wide land to fight beside Tireachan and assist Blackstone in avenging their greatest son’s death.”