Moments before dawn, Fiachrin woke with a start.
In the gray light, the copper mask was a disconcerting sight. Licks of fire lashed across the polished plates imbuing the metal with a flickering simulacrum of life. When he found her eyes, recessed from the surface of the false face, she cringed. She was kneeling beside him, her hand rested on a thick bundle. Five days had passed without a trace of her. And now she was here, a masked stranger.
“These are for you.” A tremulous quality flexed her smoky voice, rendering it as foreign as it was familiar. Not only had she appropriated the melancholy accent of Gaidtach Tuath, but there were deep cavities under her words, like sinkholes.
“About time.” Nevan emerged from the shadows of the forest, a fresh brace of rabbits swinging lifeless in his hand. “Take off that blasted mask and bathe, I can smell you from here.”
Caoinlin stood and Fiachrin had to fight back the desire to stop her. There were so many questions, so much he wanted to know.
“I expect those wounds are uglier than before,” Nevan chided aid, “since you saw fit to stay away for so long.”
“There were negotiations to attend,” Caoinlin stated, adding tersely, “Assuming control of a kingdom doesn’t happen overnight.”
“Well, then it could’ve waited a week,” Nevan said, not backing down.
Caoinlin went to her horse and removed two saddlebags and the horse’s tack. She did so with deliberate lack of haste. Fiachrin might’ve been amused by the tug of war between the old warrior and the young one, except that he was far too concerned about Caoinlin to feel particularly humored.
Sitting up, he realized that he hadn’t covered himself to sleep in the sticky evening and he drew the blanket over him, though the gesture of modesty was a rather late. He took up the bundle, undoing the cord. Two new sets of clothes.
Caoinlin dropped a pair of boots next to him, the smell of fresh leather made his head lighten.
“The cobbler can make another, if these don’t fit,” she told him flatly.
She held out a rolled parchment, staring down at him with such detached disinterest that it chilled and then, annoyed him.
“What’s this?” he asked.
She looked away as spoke.
“A message from your father. Arrived this morning,” she said, still turned away, as if watching Nevan bleed rabbits was especially interesting. “He wants me to return before winter. It’s nothing to do with you. I just thought you might want . . .” She punctuated her trailing thoughts with a shrug.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the scroll from her.
She nodded and went back to sorting through her supplies.
Fiachrin turned the scroll until he found the seal.
It’d already been broken, but the sight of him brought a lump to his throat all the same. The black wax, his father’s signet. He ran his fingers over the impression, his mind speeding the distance to his father’s war room. He had not felt so close to home in fourteen years.
Laying the scroll aside, he dressed, noting that Caoinlin kept her back firmly to him. The clothes were simple, the linen shirt loose and the leather pants, an inch or two short, but serving well enough. The boots and the short coat fit perfectly. He folded the coat and tied it back with the second set of clothes, which he didn’t bother trying on, he was too anxious.
Caoinlin took her time brushing down her horse.
“Would you quit that and clean yourself?” Nevan barked after a time.
Caoinlin swat the horse and sent it into the trees. She stowed the brush and collected a change of clothes and then, hesitated, never once looking at Fiachrin.
“Well?” Nevan said, as if he could see her, squatting there, immobile. She didn’t respond. Nevan yanked the skin off the rabbit in one quick motion. “Would you be dawdling if he were still a frog?”
This got her moving. She gathered up her clothes and stalked by Fiachrin, head down, and mask in place. Fiachrin grimaced. This was going to be more difficult than he imagined. It was if they were starting all over again. As though he hadn’t spent seven years watching her grow, seven years in which she didn’t think twice about dressing or undressing or bathing in front of him. As though he hadn’t seen her engage in the most intimate of activities, with Begley . . .
A fiery pang erupted in his core and threatened to loosen better-forgotten memories.
Fiachrin took this as an opportunity to break-in his boots and went for a brisk walk through the woods. Already he could tell it wasn’t going to be as hot as it had been the day before. A strong breeze broke through the trees and fluttering his shirt around him. The boots didn’t require so much acclimation as simply being clothed. Everything that he’d once take for granted now felt peculiar and awkward. Soon he began to sweat and he was overcome by the distinct desire to strip away these binding, clinging, suffocating fabrics and sit at the bottom of a cool bowl of water.
When he returned, little more than an hour later, Caoinlin was dressed and unmasked. It was strange to see her in black. As a princess, she owned no black gowns. Mourning in the south was done in white.
Her hair was sheared close to her scalp, little more than an inch long. Her face was red and painful to look at. Open wounds, above her brow, along her cheekbones, on her nose, tracing her jaw, glistened under a smear of the yellowish salve. His jaw tightened at the sight. Once her complexion had been smooth as almond oil. But the wolf had taken that from her too.
She sat cross-legged, rifling through papers that were scattered on the blanket beneath her: maps, letters, requests, reports. Nevan fed them and for a time, all three remained quiet, but for the shuffle of paper.
Fiachrin ate as much as he could, but his stomach was becoming disinterested in the Nevan’s rabbit stew, so he knew he was regaining his health.
After eating, he unrolled the parchment and read his father’s letter to his champion. It was brief. A few key matters, unrest in some newly conquered areas, thieves in others. A request that Conlan return before the weather turns. And at the end, a sentence that brought tears to Fiachrin’s eyes: Rest assured that Flegel is well-tended and content.
“You still have the brat?” he asked.
She paused and looked at him, finally. She nodded, a somber and uncertain draw on her face.
Fiachrin rolled the parchment and blinking his eyes dry. “My father is fond of you.”
He didn’t mean for it to come out like it did, as an accusation.
“And why not?” he added, more evenly. He set the scroll down and caught her eyes before she had the chance to look away. He held her there, though it seemed to take all his energy to do so. “After everything you’ve done for him.”
Nevan was as silent as a rabbit who was hoping not to be spotted.
She stared at him, but so much of the wolf remained there, between them—a riled heat grew in his chest, like a hive of disturbed hornets.
“I didn’t do it for him,” she said at last.
Fiachrin was pained by this, but he wasn’t sure if it was the pain of pride or of guilt, perhaps both.
“Tell me,” he said. “Tell me everything that happened from the moment you left.”
She seemed about to beg off, to try and find an excuse to avoid repeating the events of the last six years. He could well imagine that much of it was painful and would be difficult for her, which was what made it all the more necessary.
“Caoinlin,” he said, softly. “Please.”
She bowed her head, glaring hard at the ground in front of her.
He could see it happening on her face, the struggle between the wolf and Caoinlin. He did his best to rein in the tumultuous emotions this inspired in him. He wanted Caoinlin back. He wanted her to leave the mask off, for good. But he didn’t know how to make that happen or how to help her.
It was just as it had been before. When she was a girl, longing to be a warrior, and he was a frog, longing to be a prince again. And the two of them had had to help each other, find their ways gropingly toward those ends.
The wounds on her face would be the least of them, he knew. He had to resist, with all his might, the urge to push her.
After a very long moment, her hands knotted together and she looked as though she might simply curl up and sob. Perhaps that would be as good as telling her story.
Fiachrin thought cynically about the stories that he’d heard over the years, such as the ones Tadhag had told him. They always ended with a blunt, well-rounded happy and heroic punctuation mark, never with the frayed trailing fragments of lingering pain and suffering and grief.
As much as he wanted to, he did not go to her.
It was too soon, he knew.
But he wanted to.
With a deep breath, she began.
At first, the words came slowly and carefully, as though she couldn’t quite remember the details, and at some points that seemed to be true.
There was a disconcerting fluctuation in her voice, and he listened with increasing sadness as two of them spoke in turns, the Mhasc Caoin and Caoinlin. The wolf was hollow and husky, eerie and cold. Caoinlin’s was drenched in emotion, drowning in it, struggling to stay afloat. Whenever it seemed Caoinlin would break down uncontrollably, the wolf stepped in, hard and dispassionate. And though it tore at him to hear her so wounded, Fiachrin was grateful every time Caoinlin returned.
He didn’t interrupt often, but there were a few moments when he felt compelled to do so. Moments, when it was clear, information was being withheld.
The first time came fairly early in her telling, after her first battle with the Ulic, the day she met Nevan.
“You bathed in the Gorrgrey River in the wintertime?” he asked.
“It was much warmer then than it had been a month later,” Nevan said with the faintest hint of a chuckle.
Her shoulders curled in and she wet her lip, biting it a little.
“Still,” Fiachrin said. “It must have been frigid. You couldn’t have needed to wash that badly.”
Nevan bit down on the stem of his pipe with an audible click.
There was such a strange look on her face, he couldn’t pin it down and it unsettled him deeply.
“It was not that cold,” Nevan argued staunchly.
But the old man was protecting her and that only made Fiachrin wonder more.
“Why had you lingered at the riverside so long? Why would you bathe in a frigid river in the wintertime? There must have been a reason—
“Fee—” Caoinlin’s eyes squeezed shut. Her hands were so tightly clasped the fingers were turning white. “I just did, all right?”
No, not really, but he let it go.
And as if to thank him, she proceeded swiftly.
When she told him about how she’d swum through the river with the axe and destroyed the boats, he didn’t know if he should slap her for being so foolish or run straight to Tadhag and set the story right. A dozen boats indeed.
She continued, and when she told about her meeting with the prisoners, he passed on stopping her again, but once she recounted the Ulic’s escape and her capture, the gnawing in his stomach forced him interject.
“Hold on,” he interjected. “You’re telling me that this Ulic defeated you?”
She nodded, not looking at him.
Liar, he thought. But he couldn’t say why he was so certain of it.
“Why did he take you with him?” he pressed. “Why didn’t he simply kill you on the road?”
This time, Nevan didn’t intercede.
Fiachrin watched Caoinlin with narrowed eyes. “He would’ve moved much faster without you.”
Her jaw firmed and her eyes were not teary, but fiery. And it was not the wolf who spoke, as he had when recounting the previous battle and the destruction of the Ulic boats. It was Caoinling, stubborn and lying. “You’d have to ask him.”
Fiachrin ground his teeth, heat rising form his chest. “For that matter, why would he tell you that he was Arthor’s son? When he knew you would tell the Captain?”
“I don’t pretend to understand the motivations of the Ulic,” she replied stiffly.
Inhaling to keep his temper, Fiachrin couldn’t keep the scowl from his face, as much as he’d tried to be impassive while she spoke. “Why did he want to speak to you privately at all? This . . . what was his name. Atal?”
And when he said the Ulic’s name, Caoinlin sidled him a look that was at once perplexing and infuriating. While he was attempting to suss out the source of his reaction, Caoinlin said,
“I wouldn’t know, but he told a great deal about the Ulic,” she said. “About where they came from and why they came here.”
And then she recounted the Atal’s tale about the land of Moah and the city of Erim-Anai.
All the while, a chilling certainty grew within him that there was yet one Ulic left in the world in need of killing.
When she finished recounting the Ulic’s story, she paused a long moment, as if waiting for Fiachrin to question her further.
But Fiachrin was too mired down by the competing urge to find this Atal and murder him, and the desire to shake her and make her tell him the whole truth.
Nevan spoke up then,
“You were near death when you returned.”
“And when was that?” Fiachrin asked in a firm, even tone, a trick he was well-practiced at from years of concealing his true emotions.
“It was night, well-in,” Nevan answered
Fiachrin would get to the bottom of this. One way or the other. “The same night the Ulic escaped?”
“No,” Nevan answered and then hesitated. When Caoinlin remained silent he said, “It was the next night.”
“And the escape happened before midday?” Fiachrin asked.
Nevan made an affirmative grunt.
“A day and a half between the escape and your return to the fort,” Fiachrin said, leaving the sentence open for Caoinlin to explain the missing time.
But she didn’t.
While his thoughts were stormy and frustrated, he didn’t query her further. Nevertheless, the question remained. What had happened in that day and a half? What had Atal done when he’d taken Caoinlin from the road?
Caoinlin starting speaking again before he’d regained his composure to listen fully. By the time she’d reached Grunglen, she was near tears again, barely able to speak.
The wolf did not step in.
It was Nevan who tried, feebly, “Time for a bite, isn’t it?”
But it was too late.
At last, Caoinlin began sobbing. Drawing her knees up, she covered her face, her entire body shaking.
Across the fire, Nevan bowed his head and looked as though he might begin to weep with her.
Questions about Atal set aside, Fiachrin rose, tentatively, and approached her. He knelt obliquely before her.
Though he’d imagined it many times, now that it was happening, that he was finally capable of putting his arms around her, he was stymied. The gesture should’ve been as natural as walking, but as he’d learned quite painfully, it wasn’t. Had he still been a frog, he would’ve nestled into her hand and curled his webbed toes around the hills and slopes of her palm. Instead, he did the closest thing he could to that.
He took her hands.
They came away easily from her face that was both pale and burning red.
He held her hands and found them as they’d always been, calloused and battered and grimy around the cuticles and in the deep lines.
They lay in his firm grip, trembling and limp.
She looked at him then, through the veil of tears and it was her, fully her, and she was in so much pain he nearly wept.
“I’d killed her. I’d killed her to protect myself.”
He squeezed her hands. “Mo ghrà—”
“I did,” she insisted, “I should’ve turned her over to the constable. But she threatened to tell them, to tell them that what I was. I didn’t think, I just killed her. And she cursed me, Fee. She cursed me and I don’t think that I can—”
Her breath caught and she ducked her head. He tried to understand what she was saying, but it was too jumbled in the tempest of too long pent-up emotions.
Steeling herself a little, Caoinlin swallowed and lifted her head.
“I was ready to give up, to come home,” she said. “Or to just die. You were right. When we first met, you tried to tell me how awful it was. I must have sounded so foolish to you.” Her eyes were two fresh shining wounds. “And I was. I was. I wanted to be a warrior. To protect people, to help them.”
“You did,” he said, resolutely.
“I killed people,” she said, in anguish. “I became a murderer. I became the Mhasc Caoin, the greatest murderer of them all.”
“I know,” she said miserably. “I know it was war. You said that . . . I mean, in my head, you said it. I know it was only my imagination, but, it was you. Talking to me all that time. The memory of you. You kept Caoinlin, you protected her, so that the wolf could do what I couldn’t. And he did, Fee. He served your father and protected your people and killed Arthor. He did everything, everything as justly and rightly as you would have. I thought you were dead. I thought I’d never get the chance to keep my promise to you. I thought that I’d failed you.”
“No,” Fiachrin said, squeezing her hands. “It was my failure.”
“Don’t say that.” She tugged her hands away, “I don’t want to hear that.”
“I was there, Caoinlin. I saw you searching for me. And I said nothing. I was . . . I was . . .”
“Stop,” she cut in. “Before I left, my mother told me that you would never leave me.” She turned insistent and stubborn again. “And you never did. If you had, I wouldn’t be here. You were with me, Fee. The whole time. You never left me. Everything I did was because of you.”
He shook his head. “You did these things, Caoinlin,” he said. “All on your own. If I had been there, I would’ve stopped you. I met Arthor in battle, he very nearly put an end to me. I could never have accomplished what you have. That voice in your head was your voice. The Mhasc Caoin was you, is you. While you were saving my kingdom and serving my father and killing my foe, I was here, I was a frog. A wretched, useless frog. It was you, Caoinlin, and only you.”
The tips of her fingers grazed his forehead and lingered there. Her gaze growing distant. He wasn’t sure she was listening or if she was going to retreat again behind the mask.
“I stabbed him in the back,” she murmured
He took her hand again, gently, carefully. She didn’t pull away. “What? Who?”
“Arthor,” she said, looking at him once more, but her eyes were still far-off. “He didn’t even have his draw his sword. I didn’t know it was him. Not until one of his warriors came up the hill and saw him and started shouting his name. Wailing it. Half his men fled. I didn’t even stay and fight the rest. I grabbed Killeen and took him back to Nevan.”
“You saved his life,” Nevan added, fumbling with the fine leaves of herbs as he prepared his stew.
“You saved his life,” Caoinlin said.
“I’ve become a better healer than I ever was a warrior,” Nevan said as if he were insulting himself.
“This island needs healers more than it needs warriors.” Caoinlin withdrew her hand from Fee’s. “And I’ve been sitting too long.”