or three days, Caoinlin remained in her room at the inn, refusing food, drinking in sips that didn’t slake her thirst. Naked and without her mask, she huddled on the floor by the hearth.
Nevan pounded on the door hourly. He lost his voice from demanding she let him in. On the second day, he ceased knocking and started kicking.
The town celebrated her. They burned Liobhan’s body, though she seemed as dead as she could be, they were convinced that a witch had to be burned. She didn’t hear what they did with the Ulic’s body. The servants and the soldiers who had aided Liobhan were jailed and awaited the arrival of Maolan, Tireachan’s general.
Liobhan’s last words sat alone in Caoinlin’s vacated mind. No other thoughts came to aid her, as though Liobhan’s words were a lone plague victim, left in the middle of a square that would glare and spit at any who came too close. The words festered and decomposed and left a dark stain in her mind that could not be cleaned.
Late on the third day, Caoinlin woke with a start from a doze. A tense headache collected behind her eyes, which throbbed from the tears that she could not shed. She dropped her head to her knees again, submitting to another night alone in the punishing silence, when she heard him.
“So this is it, is it?” he said.
Her head jerked up, her heart pounding. Her gaze combed the bed, the table, the dark corners of the room. But she was alone. Just as she was about to let her head fall, she heard him again.
“Talk to me,” he said.
She buried her face against her knees, squeezing her eyes tighter.
“You’re not here,” she rasped through chapped, sore lips.
“No, I’m not,” the voice that was Fee and not Fee conceded. “But you need me, so I am.”
A cold certainty wound around her heart. “I’m going mad.”
Fee offered no sympathy, only cool observation. “You’re becoming what you wanted to be, a killer.”
“I didn’t want to be a killer.” Caoinlin lifted her head, spitting at the shadows. “I didn’t want to kill her. She didn’t deserve—”
“You wanted to be a warrior,” he cut in. “What do you think a warrior does?”
“A warrior doesn’t murder a defenseless woman.”
“In war, many people die,” he replied impassively.
“She wasn’t in war. This wasn’t a battle.”
“No? She placed herself between you and your enemy. Between two drawn swords,” he said. “She had to know what would happen.”
“But was he my enemy? What about Atal?”
Silence dropped like an iron chain. For a moment, she wondered if the madness had slipped away from her, but then,
“Don’t say his name to me.”
Caoinlin rested her heavy head in her weak hand. “You’re not real.”
“Drink some water,” he instructed.
She reached for the pitcher on the floor beside her. She lifted it, hands shaking, to her face and the water poured over her lips, out of her mouth.
“Slowly,” he chided.
She lowered the pitcher against her thighs and panted.
“He is not important,” Fee told her.
“Forget about him!” The shout rocked through her like a winter gale through a tree, rattling her bare branches, shaking loose the last stubborn leaves.
Caoinlin cowered, hugging her legs closer to her chest, terrified by the strength of her delusion.
“Mo ghrà,” the voice said from inside her head and outside of it at the same time. “All that matters to me is your survival. If you intend on finishing this journey and keeping your promise to me, then you must forget him, everything about him, everything he said.”
“Of course I intend to keep my promise, Fee,” she whispered.
“Then you will listen,” he said. “While you are fighting for the people of this land, I will be fighting for you. I will keep you alive. I will see you to victory. Whatever I say, you must do. Promise me.”
Longing filled her. Fee’s voice was strong and confident and everything she did not feel. She wished it were real, more than anything. “I promise.”
“Drink your water and dress. Send for food. Never deprive your body like this again.”
Her stomach clenched in protest at the thought of food, her body sank as if filled with lead. “Fee, I don’t think I can—”
“Look out the window,” he instructed.
The steel returned to his voice. “Get up and look out the window.”
She half-crawled, half-stumbled to the small window above the bed. Unlatching the shutters and then the windows, she sucked in a shocked breath as a chilled burst of air muscled into her lungs, forcing clarity into her mind. The night was clear. The stars multitudinous and dazzling, the blackness between them looked like fine cracks, as though the night would shatter and fall away and the brilliant white starlight would fill the sky in blinding impossible light.
Her forehead pressed against the rough wood of the window frame and she clung weakly to the wall.
“Yes, mo ghrà.”
“The Mhasc Caoin,” she said, her breath seemed to quiver as she spoke. “It’s . . . it’s not me.” Her eyes rolled up to the ceiling as though she were pleading for something, but she didn’t know what. Salvation, perhaps? From this thing she had created, this masked wolf. “It’s stronger than I am. It’s—"
“It’s stronger than all of us. This country needs the Mhasc Caoin.”
“But what if . . .” She shivered as the night air whispered over her skin. “What if I can’t come back? What if the Mhasc Caoin destroys me?”
“The people need the Mhasc Caoin,” he said. “They have prayed and bled long enough. The wolf has come to answer their cries for mercy. I helped you create the Mhasc Caoin, and I will help you defeat him when the time comes. Until then, give Caoinlin to me, I will keep her safe, as she kept me safe all those years. I promise. Please trust me.”
Gradually the cold sank through her weak, prickling flesh freezing it hard as metal. The dark fissures in the sky began to fail, the starlight bleeding it away until the light was all she could see. “I trust you, Fee.”
Silence flooded the room.
She leaned against the wall for a time, head bowed, thoughts of Liobhan and her lover receding until they were distant as the mother and father she had left behind.
Then she dressed. Last, the wolf’s mask. Its thin bronze sheets glimmered in the faint firelight. She placed it against her face.
When the door opened, there was Nevan on the floor, snoring lightly with his chin against his shoulder. The Mhasc Caoin, Conlan, bent down and woke his man-at-arms.