Late the next evening, he returned.
The tension had not dissipated. Fiachrin did not look at Caoinlin. He’d reached no peace with what he’d learned. Caoinlin did not seek reconciliation. She was more distant than ever. As much as it tormented Fiachrin that he was losing ground with her, his anger refused satiation.
A day passed and then another.
He began riding, conditioning himself for the long journey home. He rode Gauner, though he did not ask permission to do so. After a few days, he realized that he was trying to provoke her. At this, he was ashamed. He was acting like a child, allowing his emotions to get the better of him. But when he returned to the camp and saw her, the wounds on her face beginning to heal, not scabbing, but with the aid of Nevan’s salve simply dulling to red smudges as though she’d been burned, he felt his own wounds reopen. How many humiliations would he be forced to bear for the love of a woman? Had he not spent thirteen years suffering as the lowliest creature imaginable? But then, he’d never loved Gormlaith. Not as he did Caoinlin.
The bruise she’d left on his pride was nothing compared to the endeavor he undertook to conquer it. Though he could still not speak to her and barely look at her, he made efforts every day.
Ten days after their confrontation, just when it seemed that the wounds on her face might be taking a turn toward permanent healing, Caoinlin dawned her mask, put on the black doublet, embroidered with the Blackstone shield on both arms and after mounting Gauner said,
“Make ready to depart,” she said, “As soon as I return.”
“When will that be?” he asked.
She looked down at him dispassionately. “Soon.”
She brought Gauner around and rode northwest, in the direction of what remained of the mostly dispatched invasion force.
Nevan snuffled loudly, his sole expression of disapproval over the last week and a half and began sorting through their supplies, muttering a mental list of what they would need.
With her gone, it was easier to keep his temper even.
But even when the fires of his anger had cooled, he hated what she’d done. He couldn’t tell what he hated more—what she’d done, or knowing about it. A part of him wished he’d never pushed her to admit to it. Another part of him wished that she’d simply lied. They were false wishes, wishes based on a desire to avoid the work necessary for them both to find the solace they were seeking.
On the third day, when Caoinlin returned with another riding horse, a sturdy bay Rouncey mare carrying warmer winter clothes and supplies for him, Fiachrin was coming to terms with what he had to do, though he wasn’t happy about it.
Caoinlin had only just dismounted when Begley seemed to materialize from the late afternoon shadows heavy in the forest.
He didn’t spare Nevan or Fiachrin the smallest of looks, his attention was for Caoinlin and Caoinlin only.
Fiachrin had taken the lead of the Rouncey and upon seeing Begley, he took those of Gauner as well. Nevan stiffened, having heard Begley’s boots against the ground, but since neither Caoinlin or Fiachrin voiced any reaction, he settled down beside the fire and loaded his pipe. Fiachrin moved the horses away and began to remove their tack.
Caoinlin lingered where she was, allowing Begley to approach her, his sharp face sharper for the flinty scowl planted there. He came as far as the pond and halted. Caoinlin removed her riding gloves and dropped them on top of her satchel, already on the ground.
After a long moment, she joined him.
Fiachrin watched obliquely, knowing that this was nothing that involved him, and yet, as anxious as he had been two weeks ago when he’d confronted Caoinlin. Perhaps more so, because this time, Caoinlin was armed. And Begley was no longer the push-over he had been when Caoinlin left.
As soon as Caoinlin stopped, Begley said,
“Take that thing off.”
Caoinlin didn’t hesitate. She reached up, unfastened the buckles of the bronze mask, lined with cotton, and then removed the mail and leather coif over her head.
Fiachrin could see them in profile. Caoinlin’s wounds were raw again and bleeding where the newly healed skin had been rudely chaffed. Her expression was Conlan’s, unaffected. Begley, on the other hand, displayed a shifting range of emotions. Anger, pain, more anger and then, relief.
In the next second, Begley had his arms around Caoinlin and was holding her as tightly as she would allow.
Fiachrin cringed. Begley had managed a level of humility in a few seconds that Fiachrin hadn’t been able to show in weeks.
At first, Caoinlin didn’t react to this embrace. She allowed it, the way a cat allows itself to be picked up by a toddler, with uncertain, if not discomfited resignation. And then, her arms twitched and moved around him.
Fiachrin bowed his head and gave fierce focus to unfastening Gauner’s girth. When he looked up again, Begley was staring intently into Caoinlin’s face, his hands on either side of her head.
“You did it, Cao,” he said with bald admiration. “I should’ve known it was you. I’m sorry I tried to stop you. I’m sorry I didn’t come with you.”
Caoinlin hands covered Begley’s and held them where they were.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” she said, in her own voice. “You wouldn’t have wanted to see . . .”—she hung her head—“To see what I’ve become.”
“What are you talking about? You’re the Mhasc Caoin. You’ve become the greatest warrior on the whole of the island.” His tone darkened. “So great you defeated your father’s champion.”
Caoinlin shook her head and Begley’s hands slipped away from her.
“That’s not the worst of it,” she said, pain in her words. “Not the worst by far.”
“Cao,” he said, gripping her upper arms, in the same area where he’d slashed her weeks before. “When you carry a sword, some things can’t be helped. There’s no use dwelling.”
Clearing the emotion from her voice, she asked, “You haven’t told my father, have you?”
Begley scowled. “No. I’m not sure he would believe me if I did.”
Her body stiffened. “No,” she said. “I don’t suppose he would.”
“What are you going to do?” Begley asked. “Surely, you won’t turn over the kingdom to Tireachan?”
All trace of Caoinlin vanished then. “Do you dispute the result of the duel?”
A flicker of anger and shame moved over Begley’s face. “No.”
“Then I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Begley’s nostrils flared. “This is your kingdom, Cao. Your family, your father—”
“We aren’t children, Begley,” she said. “I cannot turn over that which has been rightfully won by another king.”
The fury in Begley’s face didn’t abate. “Then you should come tell your father that yourself, as yourself.”
“Why didn’t he see it?” she asked. “You did. Fee did—”
“Fee?” Begley was distracted by this. “You know where he is? You father’s been—”
“My father could have seen me if he’d wanted to,” she cut in. “But he didn’t. Not before and not now. He wanted a princess. Not a warrior.”
“You’re going to allow your father to lose his kingdom—”
“It’s already lost,” she spat. “Unless you want to fight me again for it. This time, I won’t hold back.”
Begley’s hands curled and uncurled at his sides, and then he spun and charged away, tearing through the forest, in a commotion that startled every bird to wing and echoed around them long after he was gone.