The Wolf Princess - Chapter 33

Updated: 16 hours ago

She dreamt of him—the Ulic. Of his glittering eyes and taunting smile and his lips on hers . . . When she woke, she ached in a way she wasn’t aware that she could ache. The more she willed it away, the stronger it grew. Duff spent the day in conference with his officers. She and Nevan lent a hand where they could. Nevan stood in a long line, passing fresh-cut timbers from a cart parked outside the shattered gate into town. Caoinlin worked down in the forest and hauling freshly felled timber to where it would be hewn. Afterward, the townspeople tried to give her more than her share at the town-hall dinner. She ate her portion and then took the rest to a downcast young girl huddled in a shadowed corner. She knelt beside the girl, placing the bowl of meat and vegetables gently into her little lap. “Eat this, daughter,” she said. The girl wrapped her pudgy, dirty hands around the bowl and looked fearfully at Caoinlin. “I isn’t your daughter.” Fat tears pooled in her hazel eyes. “I know,” Caoinin said. “Eat anyway.” Later, she learned that the girl’s mother had died of the illness that had crippled the town only a few weeks before the Ulic attack. And that her father had fallen in the fight. The townsfolk swore to her that the girl would be looked after, that there was not an orphan in the whole of Blackstone who could not find a grieving mother to cuddle her. Despite their reassurances, Caoinlin was not comforted. They offered her lodging, but in the end, she slept in the stables with Nevan, Brummer, and the brat. The stable stink was strong and as she fell asleep she thought of Begley. The memories that came drifted into dreams in which Begley was replaced by Atal and what had been comfortable and tender turned into something dangerous and thrilling. In the pre-dawn, she lay sweating and hating herself. It was some kind of trick. Some kind of Ulic magic. It must have been. His lips had been laced with some potion that infected her with this irrational thirst for him. With the desire to see him again, to taste him, to feel him. He had poisoned her. She had never experienced this feeling before. It was too intense to be natural, too haunting to be real, too consuming to be healthy. Sliding her mask up into her hair, she washed her face with the icy rain barrel water at the corner of the stable, then quickly slid the mask back into place. It felt suffocating. Her clothes, too constrictive. The fort’s walls were closing in on her. They needed to leave this town as soon as possible. On her way back to the stable, a young officer (all the soldiers seemed young) came running around the corner and intercepted her. “The Captain wants to speak to you,” he said, huffing. Caoinlin followed the youth back to the Captain’s quarters, though her escort seemed to want to run, she maintained an unhurried gait. Though the sun was not yet fully in the sky yet, the light seemed too white and bright. The sky was a washed-out blue, pale like Carrigan’s eyes. Duff waited in his quarters, which were sparse and strangely, lacking scent, as though he spent very little time there. The young soldier closed the door, leaving her and Duff alone. He gazed out the window, his thick hands clasped behind his back. “I sent a messenger to Bradenstream last night,” he said, not looking at her. “They are thirty miles inland. I expect to receive confirmation this morning. Assuming they do not think me mad, we will transport the prisoners to them at dawn tomorrow.” Caoinlin didn’t feel it necessary to speak. He finally glanced at her. “You will accompany the transport wagon,” he informed her, “to ensure their safe passage and arrival. I need as many men here as I can to assist with the re-building.” A part of her wanted to argue, not only because he was giving her orders though he had no real authority over her, but because the thought of spending a day on the road with Atal was so tempting as to be utterly repugnant. “How many escorts?” she asked. “Including you? Five.” “On horseback?” “Two on horseback, including you,” he said. “One to drive the wagon and two with the prisoners.” “One man, one prisoner?” “They’ll be chained.” “And if we’re set upon?” Duff turned a callous eye upon her. “How the Ulic might receive word of the transport, sail to our shores, trek inland, on foot, and set up an ambush in less than a day, I would like to know. Is it that you so greatly overestimate them or that you underestimate us?” Right as his indignant reaction might have been, she couldn’t bring herself to stroke his pride. “Safer to overestimate the enemy and underestimate ourselves than the other way around, wouldn’t you agree, Captain?” He looked her up and down stonily. “Where did you come from? Who are you, exactly?” “All that need concern you is that I am here,” she replied stiffly, “and that I am willing to die for your cause.” “And what is my cause?” Caoinlin studied the puffy, purple rings under Duff’s eyes. “Captain,” she said, leveling all emotion from her voice, “if you believe nothing else, believe this much. I am no more a soldier of fortune than you. That another child should not suffer the loss of her father at the hands of foreign invaders, that is my one and only cause.” “Come now, Mhasc Caoin,” the Captain retorted too quickly. “Every knight of your breeding is seeking some reward, be it glory or monetary. Else he would never venture so far from home. I was born in Blackstone.” His fist thumped his chest. “I’ve seen men like you come and go my entire life. Not one of them was so arrogant that he asked us to believe he sought naught but our welfare. Say what you want to the peasants, but do not waste your fantastic stories on me.” He rounded his low, crudely planed desk and sank heavily into his chair. “You’ve fashioned yourself quite a reputation, with the mask and the mystery,” he went on, plodding like an exhausted horse. “How many dead Ulic must be credited to your legend before you reveal yourself and return to your kingdom and to the accolades you desire? Fifty? A hundred? How many victories do you seek attached to your story before you tire of the endless tide? Before you realize that there is no true victory to be had against the Ulic. They will keep coming. There is no decisive battle to be won here. There is only constant vigilance, for every generation.” He could not know how much his words fortified her resolve. Perhaps glory had drawn her here. Perhaps the desire to prove herself had been impetus for her journey. But those ideals were so far behind her now; they felt as if they belonged to another person entirely. “If the Ulic are the ocean,” she told him, “then I will be the cliff that the halts the water. If I must be worn down to nothing to hold them back, then that is what I will do. If there is no victory, then I will be content with no defeat.” Duff shook his head incredulously. “You can’t expect me to believe that,” he said. “High speech in a noble accent may impress where you are from, but here, we’ve seen the cowardice of the aristocracy displayed too often to be beguiled.” “A thing does not need to be believed in order to exist,” she said. “More often, it exists long before anyone believes in it. And I’ve heard that the kingdom of Blackstone produced a singular nobleman, a prince, who let his actions speak for him and was no coward. I intend to act in his rightly noble example. That is unless his reputation has been posthumously exaggerated.” Duff darkened. “Fiachrin was a great man. There will never be another to match him.” “I do not intend to match him,” she said. “I intend to surpass him.” “That sort of arrogance will not win you esteem in this land.” “I do not seek your esteem,” she said, “or anyone else’s for that matter. If I did, I would not be here. I will finish what your good Prince Fiachrin began. I will kill Arthor or die at his hands. It may not stem the tide, but it might stall it long enough for the next generation to foster a love of their homeland that is not drenched in the blood-stained resentment of their fathers.” He leaned forward, his eyes darkening. “No man is as altruistic as you claim to be.” “The transport will depart at first light?” He nodded. “I will be ready.” She paused as she opened the door. “I have never heard the desire to watch a man’s lifeblood pour from his gutted body described as altruistic, but then as you rightly declared, this is not my kingdom. Though it is no less my country.”