“She’s gone,” a gravelly voice said. “Your Highness.”
Fiachrin’s head felt cavernous like someone had scooped half his brain from his skull.
“Where?” His lips were too thick and clumsy.
“To the camp, sire.”
Fiachrin’s vision was thin and saturated at the same time, and myopic, as if he’d lost an eye. The trees appeared smaller and closer.
Bird song and frog chorus came to him in muted notes, everything dull as though his ears were plugged.
He tried to move only to discover a host of aches and oddities that brought up his gorge. All he could do was turn his head to vomit, a small gesture that caused him searing pain.
The old man pushed Fiachrin’s shoulder so that he was on his side while he retched.
His hand flopped to the ground, curled and limp, clutching in spasmodic movements as he wretched up a thin, clear liquid that seared the back of his throat.
“That’s all right, Your Highness,” the old man patted his back. “A shock, that’s all.”
Done retching, Fiachrin lapsed into a pant.
Every part of him hurt. Even his fingernails felt as though they’d been jammed bruisingly into his skin. The old man rolled him onto his back again. The movement jarred his teeth, which felt bulky and loose in his gums. He bit his fat, lolling tongue and nearly brought himself to tears.
The old man was blind. His face had been slashed, probably in close combat, by a small blade, but the damage was severe. The milky orbs rolled uselessly under half-closed lids, puckered by scars. His hair was wispy white and long, pulled back though a few tendrils wafted loose around his fleshy jowls. Yet there was something familiar about him.
If his nose had been a bit less bulbous and his skin less saggy and patchy from age . . .
A smile coiled around Nevan’s thin white lips and he nodded. “Yes, sire.”
Firachrin’s head swam at the revelation.
“Here, drink this.” Nevan helped Fiachrin lift his head. A salty, honey-sweet broth touched his lips.
At first, he choked. The liquid burbled up, spurting out of his mouth and running down his face. But the next try was more successful. When he’d ingested all his squirming, gurgling stomach could manage, he laid back and stared up at the rustling leaves. Beyond the flittering canopy, the sky was blue, bluer than he ever remembered it being before, but he knew that in the mountains, it could be bluer still and spent a long moment, absorbed by that thought.
“Nevan,” he said, and the old man, who’d once been a fierce warrior, appeared above him. “My father?”
“Will know unearthly joy at your restoration, sire,” Nevan said.
Fiachrin closed his eyes again. His eyelids he had some control over at least. The rest of his body was a more tenuous matter.
“It was her,” Nevan said, “That broke this curse?”
“Then she’s done it all,” Nevan said in a wonderous tone. “Conquered the Ulic, united the island, restored a prince.”
“You knew?” Fiachrin asked, his eye cracking open. “You knew what she was?”
“And what is that, my lord?”
“Is that all?” Nevan dismissed gruffly.
“And the daughter of King Ruairi.”
“She is much more than a woman and a princess,” Nevan said, almost scolding. “You best get that into your head now, before she returns, my lord.”
Nevan moved away. Fiachrin could hear him shuffling around the fire but didn’t watch him. He gazed up that the trees, the streams of stars threading through the branches.
Fiachrin knew better than anyone what Caoinlin was. It was everyone else who misapprehended, Caoinlin included. He understood why she’d hidden behind the mask, why she’d become the Mhasc Caoin. What other choice had she been given?
But he would not pretend, Caoinlin was many things, a warrior, a champion, a general, but she was also a woman and a princess.
They’d both been forced, too long, to wear false guises.
“Nevan,” Fiachrin called the man back. “What about Gormlaith?”
Nevan hesitated. “Your fiancée, sire . . .?”
His fingers clenched reflexively and the movement brought a clawing pain up his arms. “Where is she now?”
“My deepest regrets, sire,” Nevan said. “She died in childbirth. Soon after you disappeared, she learned she was pregnant . . . I am terribly sorry, sire.”
“Don’t be,” Fiachrin replied darkly.
“For the child—”
“It wasn’t mine,” Fiachrin told him flatly. “Gormlaith was the witch who transformed me. She wanted her lover and my kingdom. But then I learned she was pregnant. We both knew it could not have been mine. I told her I would not marry her. Instead of suffering that humiliation, she bewitched me.” He swallowed, his mouth tasted chalky. “She said that I had no heart, had never cared for her. That I was too cold, too much of a warrior, a king, to ever be enough of a man to love someone, to have someone love me—”
He bit off his own words, exhausted by the sudden resurgence of fury.
“And you’ve been here, all this time?” Nevan said.
“She couldn’t have me anywhere that someone might realize,” Fiachrin said. “I couldn’t even talk about myself, about who was . . . Caoinlin figured it out on her own.”
“You trained her,” Nevan said, dawning comprehension in his voice.
“As well as I could, considering—”
“It’s what she wanted,” Fiachrin answered, though he knew that was not sufficient, that it didn’t explain it fully. How could anyone explain Caoinlin fully? There was no one like her, man or woman. “She had the aptitude and the desire . . .”
“And you had to do it,” Nevan said, a tinge of judgment in his voice, “so that she might help you change back.”
“I had to do what was right for her,” Fiachrin snapped, the outburst knocking free a swarm of pain that shrieked through his head. “Is it manipulation if what was right for her, was right for me as well? And for Gaidtach Tuath, the entire island. I never asked so much of her as this cursed island has.”
“I meant no offense, my lord,” Nevan said, genuinely remorseful. “I shouldn’t question your motives, not when we’ve all benefitted so greatly from the outcome of your actions.”
Fiachrin’s head clanged. “Perhaps not all of us have benefitted so greatly.”
“I can’t have you speak ill of . . . Caoinlin, as you call her.”
“I call her that because that is her name,” Fiachrin stated.
“Not to this island,” Nevan replied. “Not in the stories that fathers tell their children as they put them to bed at night. Not in the prayers of those children who thank Sinnsirean for giving us the Mhasc Caoin to defeat the Ulic and thus allowing their fathers to return home after decades of war. To them, the Mhasc Caoin is a—”
“A man?” Fiachrin finished, a fresh sweat breaking over his body in his agitation. “A man with no face, no home, no humanity. Are you content as they are to let her lose all those things?”
“I’ve done all I could to see her safely through, sire,” Nevan said strongly. “Everything I knew how to ensure her survival.”
“That’s what I thought I was doing as well,” Fiachrin sighed, the energy draining out of him. “But is that what has happened? Has she survived? Or have we only drawn out her death over these long years, buried her behind that cursed mask and the unbearable burden of this legacy?”
Nevan lapsed into silence then and it suited Fiachrin well enough. He hurt too much to argue further, and from the heaviness of Nevan’s silence, Fiachrin could tell he’d given the old man pause. He did not doubt Nevan’s earnestness when it came to Caoinlin’s welfare. They all thought they were being altruistic, Nevan, Caoinlin, him.
All his life, he’d been taught to serve. He’d been a model of royal humility. The people had thought him fair and just and honorable and he’d done all he could to prove them right.
When his father’s ministers begged him to stay out of harm’s way, to let others fight off the Ulic, he’d stubbornly refused, because it was his duty, to his people and his kingdom. If his people were chased by death, then he would stand in death’s way. His father couldn’t disagree and so, Fiachrin had gone to war. The people said it was brave and selfless—the mark of a true king. Fiachrin fought as hard and put his life in as grave a danger as any other. It was the right thing to do.
But it hadn’t been easy.
There were many times when he’d wanted to flee, when he’d wanted to turn away from the blood and the madness and the death. There had been nights when he couldn’t escape them—the visions of blackened corpses of families, clinging to one another, charred and unrecognizable; the hacked and bloodied bodies of his soldiers, wailing like small children for their mother in their last breaths.
Worse, he’d blamed himself. If only he’d been faster, if only he’d gotten there sooner. In the darkest hours, there was no hope, no faith, no amount of courage that could free him from the torment of seeing the faces of his comrades, losing life through deep red gashes that collected in vibrant pools which the earth, too saturated with blood already, refused to soak up. He held them while they died, reassured them so that could go in peace, but was never able to reassure himself, never able to find peace.
So he’d made concessions, separations, to find some semblance of peace.
There might’ve been truth to Gormlaith’s accusations, though she was only making them to justify a decision she’d made long before, a decision that had little to do with him.
He’d hated her for cursing him, for banishing him, but for her selfishness most of all. He couldn’t understand it, didn’t want to. Why should he? Selfish desire was no virtue.
Except, Gormlaith’s selfishness had led him to Caoinlin.
If that hadn’t happened, then where would he be? Dead, most likely. And his kingdom still entrenched in war, the Ulic chipping away at their resources and lives. Yes, they’d benefitted from Caoinlin’s self-sacrifice.
But the only stories about Caoinlin painted her as the fool-hardy, wayward princess who was lost and probably dead. A moral tale to keep disobedient daughters biding the rules.
All the glory, all the honor, and respect that she’d rightfully earned, was credited to a phantom, to a wolf in a mask.
As he drifted toward a restless sleep, these thoughts rode like a troublesome wind in his mind.
In this new kingdom, this country of her making, Caoinlin should have one name, one face, and be as whole as the island that she had united.
She had earned that much.
And he determined, somehow, he would be the champion of that cause.