That night, Nevan helped her into the tent.
Her feet were hobbled by a number of cuts, she had a nasty bump on the top of her head and she felt limp all over, but she slept hard and deep, a healing sleep. Nevan insisted she keep his blankets wrapped around her and he slept beside her. His musky scent was much like the horses’, dry and familiar. The next day, though she was famished and almost begged for food, he refused, giving her only the broth of the rabbit stew and promising that if she slept more, he’d give her something she could chew.
This wasn’t a difficult bargain to enter, anytime she ingested something, she felt like sleeping. She barely noticed their surroundings or wondered how far they were from the road or the town. The weather seemed mild and reminded her of early winter in Redthorn kingdom. Fog snaked between the trees like meandering streams, but rarely built into opaque swells as it did on the river. One day it seemed to drizzle, but didn’t seem to bother Nevan who spent most of the day tending the fire, checking his traps, and caring for her.
Soon, dreams returned, like an eagle-prowed longship emerging from a fog bank. The best of them were when she was in battle and woke just before a glowing blue edge plunged into her gut. The worst was one in which she returned to Redthorn. The Palace reduced to a smoking black ruin. She found her father’s body face down on her mother’s grave. The heads of the guard were stuck on pikes lining the promenade and Begley’s body tied to the portcullis, his stomach cut open and his entrails pecked at by crows. And then she heard a voice,
She searched and searched, but couldn’t find him. All the while he called and she called back, but she never saw him.
From this dream, she woke and her eyes immediately flicked over to where Fee would’ve been, on the pillow beside her. But there was no pillow and no Fee. She felt deserted and empty.
At some point, she started counting the days again.
A week passed filled with nothing but bed rest and Nevan’s vigilance. When she came out of the tent, for the first time completely under her own power, she found a small heap beside the tent. She picked out a pair of fine boots, not hers, but they looked as though they would fit. There were fresh shirts, pants, two daggers, a belt, and three masks, one wool, one leather and one made of thinly-hammered squares of copper, fit closely together with tiny rings that allowed the mask flexibility and movement.
“What is this?” she asked, holding the delicate mask on her palm where it gleamed in the cloud-shielded light.
Nevan, who’d been pretending that he hadn’t heard her get up and hobble around on her still bandaged feet, though he’d specifically told her not to walk on them, grunted.
She placed the mask against her face. The chill of the metal on her skin sent a shiver through her.
“I told them I didn’t know a thing about no ‘masked wolf’, but that damned palfrey of yours.” He clucked like a disapproving hen. “I took him to water at the river. Most of it’s from Oirsand, some from Gorrgrey.”
She sat cross-legged beside him. He held a bowl of steaming stew in front of her.
“The outpost captain wants to see you, as soon as you’re able,” he said.
They ate in silence. He re-bandaged her feet, demanded she wrap herself in a blanket, and then settled to smoke a pipe. After he’d taken a few pulls he said,
“You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
She clenched her jaw and stared into the fire. The brat came over and nuzzled her neck a bit. She scratched his chin, resting her head against his and peering her thanks into his eye.
“This land,” he said and paused as if reconsidering what he’d been about to say. “This land has been praying for a hero. Ever since Fiachrin was killed . . . hope’s been bled out of the people.”
“Fiachrin?” The name made her chest hurt and her eyes go blurry.
“Tireachan’s son.” Nevan’s words grew faraway, careful. “I fought with him.”
She straightened up. Flegel plodded away from her to rejoin Brummer.
“You fought with Fiachrin?”
He made an affirmative noise.
Her heart felt as if it were pounding out a coded message against her ribs. “What happened to him?”
Nevan leaned back, against his pack and drew many pulls before his voice came out in somber, grief-tinged tones.
“He was set to be wed. Princess Gormlaith, from Leafwhite. A beauty that could stop the clouds . . . Fiachrin was the pride of his kingdom, of all the kingdoms.” A small smile curled the thin corners of his lips. “The tales I could tell you. The battles. We met Arthor’s own armies, more than once. Fiachrin faced the Ulic King himself. Had we not been losing the battle, Fiachrin would’ve killed Arthor that day, but we could not hold and when the Ulic turned back, they rallied to Arthor, saved their cursed king, and left Fiachrin for dead—”
Caoinlin closed her eyes and bowed her head.
She tried to imagine Fee, Fiachrin, on the cusp of destroying the marauder king. But she couldn’t. The imaginary Arthor that she’d spent her childhood fighting didn’t match up with the Ulic faces she’d seen. The imaginary Arthor was not a man. He was a monster’s shadow, a silhouette etched into the atmosphere, made of smoke. A childhood nightmare. Not flesh, not human, not real. But she’d seen the Ulic now. Their leaf-shaped eyes that looked as though they were edged in charcoal. Their russet and bronze-colored skin. The confidence and skill in their attacks. The obvious superiority of their weapons, of their ships. But for all that, their blood spilled just as easily. Arthor could bleed, he would bleed.
And Fee was still a frog. Not a prince, not a warrior-knight. Not a man who’d almost killed Arthor, who’d almost married. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t picture him as anything else than her Fee, a frog.
“Arthor is no fool. He’s not interested in raiding. He wants to conquer. And he wanted Fiachrin. He knew that if he could defeat Tireachan’s only son that he would weaken Blackstone and demoralize the coastal kingdoms. The marriage of Fiachrin to Gormliath was heralded, celebrated across the lands. It was to be on the equinox during harvest. Two weeks before, word came that Arthor’s fleet had been spotted off Leafwhite’s coast, hundreds of ships. Fiachrin could not ignore. He called up troops and rode ahead, to ensure Gormlaith’s safe journey to Blackstone. By the time the troops arrived at Leafwhite castle, the fleet was no where to be seen and Fiachrin was gone. His guard had been killed with scimas. It was thought that the fleet had been mere distraction. That Arthor had led a clandestine party to find Fiachrin at the castle, to find him. To kill him.”
“He’s alive,” she said, before she realized that perhaps it wasn’t the best thing to say.
Nevan frowned. “What?”
Caoinlin fumbled. “I mean, it doesn’t make sense. Why would Fiachrin be gone? If Arthor came to kill him, why not leave the body? Arthor would want Tireachan to know that Fiachrin was dead.”
“It was an insult,” Nevan said. “With no body to bury, Tireachan’s grief can never be laid to rest.”
Caoinlin ached to tell him the truth. That Fiachrin was alive, except, she wasn’t sure that he was anymore. Maybe there was no point in searching for him, maybe he was dead. How long could a frog live? Would he live as long as a frog? Or would he live his normal lifespan as he would’ve as a man? More to the point, where had he gone? Surely he couldn’t have attempted the journey north on his own, in winter.
Her head ached for the answers she didn’t have; her heart for the friend she’d lost.
“Do you believe in magic?” she asked.
Nevan shifted and snuffled. “Children’s stories.”
Caoinlin nodded and felt her chest constrict again.
“What was he like?” she asked. “Fiachrin?”
“He was everything he should’ve been,” Nevan answered proudly. “And more. No better son. Loyal. Disciplined. Honorable. He was barely a man when I took the field with him and I saw him become something . . . You are no Fiachrin. And now, with what you’ve done. That lunacy. It’s not right. And no good will come of it. Not for them and not for you.”
“I don’t want to be their hero,” she told him, pulling the blankets tighter around her.
“Then what do you want to be? What did you mean by coming here? Doing what you’ve done?” For the first time, she felt he was addressing her as a woman or a child, or both.
“And what have I done?” A rigid challenge came into her voice.
Nevan sneered and leaned back. He puffed. “Madness.”
“I came to do what needed to be done. No one asked you to come along,” she said sharply, but then softened. “I am grateful, for what you’ve done.”
He issued a non-committal noise from somewhere near the bottom of his throat.
“And I’ll understand if you choose to remain behind,” she said. “But I have to keep going.”
“And why is that?”
Why was she here? Why did she keep throwing her life at the feet of death? She was a good warrior. But did that warrant the deception, the risk? She had to admit, it was harder than she’d anticipated. She hadn’t expected that after each engagement she’d have to drag herself back from the brink. That after every fight, she’d have to go through a second fight to survive the wounds.
And she was changing into someone else. Someone whose intentions weren’t what Caoinlin’s had been when she’d set out. She’d been running away. In hindsight, it seemed selfish, foolish, naïve. Who was she to turn away from the life of a princess? A life of privilege and wealth and security, when there were so many who had none of those things? It was ungrateful. Besides all the pain and dishonor it brought to her family, her father, her people.
This new person, this masked wolf, Conlan, growled. What was it to be nobility? To spend your days lounging in expensive gowns, eating rich foods, sleeping in safe beds, while others froze, starved, were murdered?
The people in the kingdom of Redthorn were privileged as well as she’d been. Other than minor skirmishes with neighboring kingdoms, it was peaceful. For many years, they’d enjoyed prosperity. Ruairi was a just king. No one starved in Redthorn, no one was taxed beyond their means, no duke or lord was allowed to play tyrant in his province, to withhold food or shelter from anyone. The people of Redthorn had hope; they had hope to spare. If that meant they should have to sacrifice their princess to give hope to their countrymen, then was it even a question?
Though the country had never been united under a single leader, they were all of one island. If Arthor had intent of conquest, then that would affect them all. The more she thought about it, the more she saw that the old ways, the old traditions and languages that had once separated the kingdoms and the people, those differences were no longer so evident or great. There would’ve been a time when she and Nevan wouldn’t even have spoken the same language; when she would’ve seemed as foreign to him as the Ulic seemed now. That time was over. As the northern kingdoms had learned, it was now a time to ban together. Division would weaken them against the Ulic.
She could no longer think of herself as a princess of Redthorn. She was a warrior for the people. She’d been given a lifetime’s worth of abundance and well-being, if she lost it all, to offer some chance to these people, to her people, then what greater act of nobility? Fiachrin had fought, though he was the only son of Tireachan and knew that if he died, his line would be thrown into turmoil. But his land was already in turmoil. What good is a king that has no kingdom? What purpose does a lord have with no one to protect? Fiachrin knew that the pact between the aristocracy and the people was not a one-sided contract.
And she could hear Fee, agreeing, though he wouldn’t have wanted her to put herself in this precarious position, he was more honorable, more loyal, and more forthright than anyone she’d ever known. If he’d been the warrior-knight that Nevan described, then his actions spoke for what he believed. He had a duty, as one of the privileged, to safeguard the homes and lives of those whose lives and labor granted him that privilege. And so, she knew why she was here and why she had to continue the fight, his fight.
“When we met, you said that I should defend my skill, if not for myself than for my master,” she said. “Maybe I came here for the wrong reasons, but now that I’m here, I’ll do whatever I can. Because if he were here, that is what he’d do.”
“He’d jump into a frozen river, hack holes into Ulic vessels, and near about die of cold?”
Caoinlin wanted to be defensive but instead found herself grinning. “No.”
Nevan’s face was unreadable. “Lost a damn good axe too.”
Caoinlin chuckled. And caught sight of Nevan as he pressed down on a smile.