It couldn’t be.
But it was.
Fee knew the moment that the Mhasc Caoin appeared that it was her.
Fee was again, upon the King’s shoulder, though holding on more tightly, as they were on horseback and the wind was stronger, promising a storm before noonday. But at dawn the sky was hardly clouded and cheerful song birds chorused all around, deafening the snorts of horses and the jingle of chain mail. The lush green grasses had been tamped down the day before, flattened with long wooden poles, to create a ring. The hill top, where Blackstone army was encamped, rose just beyond the hunting forest, within which was Clearspring pond, where he’d met Caoinlin. The Palace and village were well within view, along with the surrounding orchards of olive, almond and fig trees, fields of grape vines and leafy vegetable greens all damp and sparkling with morning dew, glowing rosily in the pink hours before sunrise. Were it not for the armies facing off on either side of the ring, the scene would’ve been idyllic.
Not that Fee took much notice—not of his surroundings, not of the armies, not even of himself or the situation. His attention was fixed wholly upon the impossible, and then, upon the rider who emerged when the Blackstone hordes parted to allow a massive black courser through.
He was clad in armor—steel buffed to a high luster, though inconspicuous its lack of adornment. His helmet was of similar simple design. There was no face guard, but he wore a mask of thin silver, in half moons, that clung to his face and glimmered in the light with every movement.
Killeen rode at his side, a tight draw upon his brow. Had he realized that this was his commander’s true home? Most likely, he had.
But Fee was certain that none of them, not even Killeen, knew the whole truth about their commander, about their legendary Mhasc Caoin.
Fee knew immediately though. The instant she emerged.
From the way she rode her horse, and the smooth swing of her dismount. From her long, prowling gait that was at once wholly different from what it had been, and yet, unmistakably hers.
Every swing of her arm and tilt of her head, every movement, belied the truth.
The revelation of it filled him until he felt he might burst.
In his mind, all he could thing was, its her, its her.
The King remained on horseback and did not broach the ring, to do so would be to put himself in for combat. And even if Fee could have spoken, he wasn’t sure he would have.
Would Ruairi would recognize her? There was so little to recognize, really. She gave every appearance of a man. In armor, even beside the burly Killeen, who walked with her into the ring, there was nothing feminine about her lean physique. She was tall and broad-shouldered and moved with the confidence of what she was—a great king’s champion, the mythical Mhasc Caoin, the one who defeated Arthor.
Fee choked on the immensity of it.
She’d done it all.
Suddenly, Fee was sinking, heavy as a golden ball to the bottom of a pond, ashamed that he’d doubted her and believed her dead.
Begley, in his own gold-filigreed armor, went out to meet the Mhasc Caoin.
Would he know her? Would he reveal her? What would happen if he did?
A snap of panic rang through Fee, causing him to hop and nearly lose his grip upon the king’s shoulder.
The king turned his head to glance sideways at Fee, but said nothing. There was a spark in his eye, a glint of hope. He had not worked it out. The why to the question he had asked the day before.
Why would the Mhasc Caoin make this offer?
The king did not see his own daughter standing before him on the plain of battle.
He could not. Or would not.
But Fee saw.
Begley and his second, Jarlath, strode out to meet the fabled Mhasc Caoin.
Both champions stopped well out of reach of each other.
Their seconds continued forward to the center.
Begley sized up the Mhasc Caoin, his head buzzing, his heart thundering.
As rumors said, the Mhasc Caoin wore a metal mask. It was difficult to get a clear look at the mask as his face was turned away from Begley and his eyes closed—perhaps he was praying. Beneath the mask was a leather coif, blunting any features of the man’s true face.
The Mhasc Caoin’s upper arms were protected by nothing but chain mail and the leather beneath. Begley didn’t know if he was being insulted or if the Mhasc Caoin was simply so confident in his skill. Begley chose to believe he was being insulted, which got his hair up and made his whole body tingle.
All the years of humiliation in the stables, the hard work in secret with Fee and Caoinlin, the endless tests once he had been taken in by Gus. All of it had led up to this moment. In which the stableboy would prove himself a true champion and save the kingdom.
Jarlath and Killeen spoke, exchanging the expected words and agreeing to the same terms. No one needed to hear them, everyone knew they what the words would be: to yield or to the death.
Begley would not yield. He knew full well that most people expected he would lose, even his own people. Perhaps Ruairi expected it as well. After all, this was the man who’d killed Arthor and who’d brought every other king to his knees.
He would die or win.
But as he inspected the Mhasc Caoin, eyes closed, head lowered, body still and relaxed, Begley did not see the phantom of his own death. He almost felt like laughing. The Mhasc Caoin was not terribly intimidating. On the contrary, Begley could see nothing that made this opponent any worse than any of the other men he’d faced. A heavy weight left Begley’s shoulders. Conquering the myth was half of the battle won. The Mhasc Caoin was merely a man, as Arthor had been, nothing but flesh and bone and blood, and a man could be killed.
Jarlath and Killeen returned to their champions.
Jarlath held Begley’s sheathed sword out to him. His tough brown eyes bored into Begley as if begging him to yield. Begley drew his sword and smiled at Jarlath’s narrow, sweating face. Then he dropped his visor over his own face.
The world was reduced to a narrow band. At its center, the Mhasc Caoin drew his sword. The curved blue blade might’ve distracted Begley, had he not met the same sort of strange metal in the war against Gaibrial and his mercenaries. Many of them had also carried Ulic steel.
They both waited.
Begley watched Killeen over the Mhasc Caoin’s shoulder, while the Mhasc Caoin simply remained as he’d been, eyes closed, head bowed.
When the Mhasc Caoin’s second stepped out of the ring, Begley took guard, raising his sword.
As soon as his sword moved up, the Mhasc Caoin’s eyes opened. His own blue blade arced through the air.
In that moment, Begley look straight into the Mhasc Caoin’s gray eyes and faltered.
His breath stopped, his mind blanking.
The Mhasc Caoin lunged.
Begley’s body responded without his awareness, though due to his hesitation he was on his back in matter of moments.
Both armies roared.
The Mhasc Caoin jammed his knee into Begly’s hip, his blade full-press against Begley’s.
But Begley could hardly take notice, now that he was but a few inches from the Mhasc Caoin’s face and staring right into his . . . into her eyes.
He knew it, but couldn’t understand it.
Caoinlin was the Mhasc Caoin?
He probed into the flinty eyes glaring down at him, searching for some spark of recognition, some signal that it was really her and not simply his imagination, some mistake.
For what seemed a long moment, there was nothing.
The gray eyes were Caoinlin’s, but not. They didn’t divulge the faintest glint of familiarity.
Begley tried to convince himself he was mistaken. It was only coincidence that this masked man, the legendary warrior of the North, terror of the marauders, killer of Arthor, servant to Tireachan, this man simply had the eyes of a woman long dead. A woman that Begley loved more than his own life. And in this ponderous moment, staring into those dead eyes, Begley felt the surge of his grief mutating into anger, demanding that he kill the Mhasc Caoin, even if it meant dying himself.
And then the Mhasc Caoin spoke, his voice barely a whisper, utterly foreign in its scraping aspirated accent,
“Do you surrender?”
And as soon the words came out, the Masc Caoin’s impenetrable gaze wavered and dispelled like a fog, and in their depths, a shadow emerged. Caoinlin, desolate, but determined as ever.
He nearly dropped his sword and fell over from the shock.
But in the next instant, a storm emotions assaulted him, pouring out in a surge of action.
With nothing but brute force, he tossed her away.
She was thrown, hard, onto her back, but was up again in seconds.
They glared at each other.
He could’ve said something, right then. Exposed her for what she was—a fraud, a liar, a princess in warrior’s disguise.
But he was too angry at her to speak. And, in truth, he knew she wasn’t a fraud. No one could fake such feats. No one, man or woman, could become a king’s champion without earning it. He knew that first hand.
Caoinlin’s gaze held his coolly, the shroud in them returned until there just him and the Mhasc Caoin again.
The sight of the wolf rising up to stand between them brought him out in goosebumps and stoked his anger again.
Silver mask flashing in the rising sunlight like fish scales, the Mhasc Caoin took guard, the Blackstone army let out a deafening cheer.
He took guard, unsure if he could kill her, unsure if she would kill him, but knowing that he had to fight as though he could and she might.
As they engaged, he could not think of her as Caoinlin.
Like before, she was better. Damn her. She had always been better. Driving him to defense, relentless and focused. Her intent seemed to be to wear him down.
The heat of the day began to settle on top of them and sweat made him slick all over, but he didn’t tire.
After the initial bouts, they began to fall into old patterns, as though they were once again in the old arming room, practicing for battles that, at the time, he hadn’t believed they would ever fight.
Tears that couldn’t make it to his eyes, stung his heart and lingered there.
Time went on, though he couldn’t say how much.
He panted, head hot and mouth dry.
They were tightly locked. She stuck her pommel behind his knee and made to thrust her shoulder to him and throw him to his side. Instead, he got her arms, and flung her to down onto her face.
Quick as ever, she was up again. The crack of a smirk broke the firm set of her mouth, gone as soon as it appeared.
The onlookers had fallen into a predictable pattern as well, sounding when a good blow was made, raising their voices when it seemed someone was set to strike decisively.
Begley wondered how many noticed that both their champions had passed opportunities to do each other serious harm.
Twice, she’d left her vulnerable upper arms exposed and he’d not struck.
But as the morning sun crept higher, he began to wonder at those exposed limbs. He wondered if perhaps, she’d left them exposed for a reason.
If her arms were injured, and she couldn’t lift her sword, then surely her second would step forward and forfeit for her, even if she was too stubborn to surrender.
Was she setting him up to win? Just as she had when they were children? When she thought he didn’t know, but he always knew, when she let him win. There had been a handful of times, when he’d gotten the better of her, on his own, but he’d never won all out, unless she’d let him. The thought that she might be doing it again ground at him and whipped his pride.
Maybe she was the Mhasc Caoin, maybe she always won, but he didn’t want to be the first man to defeat her simply because she’d allowed him to. That was no victory, no matter what the stakes.
When their blades were fast to each other’s and their faces so close that he could taste the salt of her sweat through the slots in his visor, he spoke.
“Fight me for real or I’ll expose you for you are.”
Above the swirling metal of her blade, she fixed his gaze and nearly made him give way with that alone. “And who am I?” On the tail of the same breath she said, “You’ve never met me before.”
“No more games, Cao. this is too important.”
“If we’d met before”—she smiled, viciously—“you’d be dead.”
He landed on his back and she rounded on him, giving him a second to right himself and then the real bout began.
In moments, they were both bleeding.
A slice high on her left arm splattered her vambrace and left a spotty trail behind her. And in turn, she’d exhibited the full power of her foreign blade and cut through his armor and the leather below and left a shallow wound along his thigh. It was little more than a scratch, but it jarred him.
Two more blistering clashes.
Her other arm was injured, bleeding freely, but this didn’t slow her. The more she bled, the harder she fought.
Somehow in a flurry of thrusts and parries, he had her down. Her sword was jarred loose and he kicked it away.
Before she could get back up, he dashed around and pointed his sword toward her throat. The crowd went silent.
“Do you surrender?” he asked, barely able to ask for his panting.
The onlookers leaned forward, half wild with expectancy, the other half stunned with disbelief.
He’d done it. He’d beat her, finally and truly. He took another step toward her, two more and his sword point would graze the mail over her throat.
She chained him to her gaze, never blinking, so that he couldn’t have looked away if he’d wanted to.
“The dead don’t surrender.” She dropped her shoulders to the ground, kicking her legs up and out, and knocked the sword from his hand.
He spun to retrieve it, but she launched at him, drawing her dagger and bashing her gauntlet against his helmet, causing him to lose balance. His ears rang, his vision multiplied.
With another kick, he was on his hands and knees.
She cut his helmet loose, slicing into his jaw, and whipped the helmet aside. Seizing a fistful of his hair, she yanked his head back sharply, drawing more blood as the edge of the dagger pressed into the thin skin of his neck.
“You’re dead,” she whispered into his ear.
“Enough!” Ruairi bellowed.
Jarlath took his cue from the king and broke into the ring. “We yield,” he said weakly.
“You lost the kingdom,” she said softly as the dagger eased away, “to keep your pride. You’re no better than the rest of them. You should’ve stayed in the stables.”
She released him and was out of the ring, riding away, before he got to his feet.