Seven weeks of travel, from the most southern palace of Redthorn to the most northerly castle of Blackstone. In that time, Fiachrin caught only the scantest glimpses of Caoinlin behind the mask.
Everywhere they went, the wolf was lauded, treated as a hero.
No one knew Fiachrin. No one guessed who he might be. He was just another of the wolf’s soldiers as far as they were concerned. He made no attempt to reveal himself, either. He did not desire attention.
To the Mhasc Caoin, was proffered the best of everything. Rich lords set out feasts on golden chargers, humble inn-keepers unlocked their most precious stores of spices, peasants stopped them to push skinny chickens and fresh cheese into their hands, which Caoinlin could not refuse, lest she insult their pride. When they came upon the poorest, who could do nothing but step aside, some too weak to bow, instead lowering their heads or their eyes, Caoinlin would pass on the gifts she’d received. And the beggars and orphans could not refuse, lest they insult her pride.
Fiachrin longed to know what it was he saw congealing in her eyes, some decision she was coming to. But the Ulic had come between them. And he could not speak of such things to her when she was the wolf.
All she spoke to him about was the minutiae of governance. Not that these things were unimportant, seeing that he was poised to assume control of an entire island, much of which he’d never even seen.
She, on the other hand, had been everywhere. To every kingdom, granted, most of them she’d come to as a conqueror, but as general, she’d overseen the establishment of transitional governance, pending the king’s approval.
From what Fiachrin gathered, Tireachan usually saw fit to render permanent the leadership Caoinlin appointed. Armies were left in place, but for the most part, governance was granted to local lords. The few kings that had acceded to Tireachan were allowed to continue rule in a diminished capacity, as lords. This was true in Redthorn, where Ruairi ruled still, under Killeen’s watchful eye reporting back to Caoinlin.
Fiachrin was astounded by the Broad Road and its ancillary—a highway that traversed from Teamair to every one of the new province’s capitols, one conceived by Caoinlin and in part, shadowed the roads she traveled as a conqueror. She managed the continued to construction on the Broad Road, of new bridges and of fortifications along old roads expanding to accommodate the increased traffic. Messengers flew from one end of the kingdom to the other and no matter where she was, they always found her. Orders were scrawled on parchment pressed to her thigh as she sat astride her horse, a small wooden board attached to Gauner’s tack for that purpose. Squads moved here or there, supplies transferred or requested, officers removed, retiring, honored, roads, canals, barracks, all being built by the wealth and grace of Tireachan and under her advice and direction. Fiachrin soon realized that his father did not simply depend on Caoinlin as a general and champion, but that he had been treating her as the heir to his throne.
For her part, Caoinlin read aloud every message to Fiachrin, explained the details of which he was uninformed and then, laid out the intentions behind her responses, even as she wrote the orders, sealed the messages, and sent them off. She was already preparing him to take her place. But it did not sit well with him that she filling in the taut space between them with every detail she could think of that might come to be of some importance later on. As though she would not be there—later on—to inform him of these things.
They left summer behind them.
Autumn was little more than a day, it seemed, of bright sun and cool breezes and gold-tinged fields. The winds came, mistrals off the northern seas, pushed frost and fog against them as they went east, to skirt the mountains.
And then there were the mountains and Fiachrin’s troubled mind was settled by their familiar black slopes and snow-capped peaks.
He was home.
Just beyond the hinterlands, that had never been so beautiful in their bleakness, and into peat country, when the first person recognized him.
A ruddy-cheeked mother, wires of gray hair coiling through the bush of black atop her head, surrounded by half a dozen children, a gaggle of plump smiles and cheerful calls. Fiachrin could not recall ever seeing the blue-eyed, black-haired children of Gaidtach Tuath smile in such a way. Free, untroubled, happy.
They bolted down the road from their small cottage at the approach of the Mhasc Caoin, the oldest a young man of near sixteen and the youngest still on with dimples on her chubby arms, her legs not quite able to run as fast as she wanted. They tumbled onto the roadside and walked abreast of their great hero’s caravan of soldiers and horses and wagons.
Caoinlin dismounted and learned each of their names. It was Caoinlin who did this, not the wolf. And because of that Fiachrin got down from his horse as well and walked alongside, eavesdropping as the children clambered to ask questions about the war, about Arthor, about the south and west and the east. They paid Fiachrin no mind; the silver mask captivated their attention wholly.
As the company approached the cottage, they found the mother at the gate, a sleeping baby in her arm, and a glow of contentment around her. She, too, focused on Caoinlin, at first. Her children guided Caoinlin to their mother and hurried to tell their mother everything that they’d learned in the few short minutes they’d walked along the road with the Mhasc Caoin. She gave each of them a smiling nod of acknowledgment, her brilliant blue eyes dazzled by the light that shimmered off Caoinlin’s silver mask. She bowed to Caoinlin and then her eyes flicked to Fiachrin, who was a farther back, nearer the Nevan’s wagon. She looked away for a second and then, immediately back. Her eyes bulged, her pudgy hand flew to her breast, and she gasped. Her children, thinking her suddenly ill, reached for her as if she might fall. Her gaze combed over Fiachrin’s, so deeply that he was compelled to lower his eyes, no longer accustomed to such open scrutiny.
“It can’t be,” she breathed, tears brimming. “It can’t be.”
She took a few steps toward him, pushing aside the gate, bringing the huddle of her children with her, some of the older ones turning their attention to him, curious.
“Is it? Is it you?”. Her hand reached toward him, as though she were reaching for something that might not be there, a ghost.
“Seadh, piuthar,” he said softly.
She inhaled sharply and then, dropped firmly to her knee, bowing her head. Her children stared up at him, mostly confused, but a few annoyed, as if he’d caused their mother injury.
“Mother?” a girl of about ten said, touching her mother’s arm. Her mother snatched her daughter’s arm.
“Bow!” She glared around at her children. “Bow to the prince!”
Sloppily, the children mimicked their mother, though it was evident none of them knew why there were being asked to do so.
“Please, stand,” Fiachrin murmured, so stunned by the sudden display that he could do little else. Behind him on the road, the company trickled past, but a few of the soldiers exchanged confused looks. In all this time, not one of them had been told, either by him or Caoinlin, who Fiachrin truly was.
The mother rose and the children followed, less certainly. She was crying openly, but she smiled.
“I saw you,” she said. “When I was girl, I saw you leading the army to Leafwhite,” she said, in the same breathless rush that her children had spoken to Caoinlin in. “You look—you look just the same.”
“I was under a curse, I did not age,” Fiachrin told her.
She nodded as if this was a common story. The children’s ears perked at the mention of curses and not aging, but were still dumbfounded by their mother’s reaction.
The same girl tugged on her mother’s wrist. “Mother? Who is he?”
The mother touched her daughter’s head. “It is Fiachrin. It is our lost prince.”
At this, the children boggled.
“How is it you’ve returned to us, Your Highness?” the mother asked.
“The Masc Caoin,” Fiachrin said. “The Masc Caoin has done it all. You will remember that, sister? The Masc Caoin saved us all and asked for nothing in return. For that, there is a debt owed that can not be recompensed, not with land or wealth, not with any earthly treasure. Eternal gratitude does not begin to repay, but we must give it and be humble, with or without the mask.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the mother said, gazing at him as if in a dream.
“We should move on,” Caoinlin said, a warning edge to her voice. She mounted Gauner.
“Remember, sister,” Fiachrin said quietly. “Don’t allow your children or your husband or your kin, don’t allow any of them to forget.”
“No, your highness,” she said, “How could we?”
“Our memories may yet be tested,” Fiachrin said, as he mounted his horse. They rode away, Caoinlin taking a lead and keeping a distance for some time.
Late that day, when they broke away from the main company to make the more solitary camp the wolf preferred and Fiachrin was meditating the boiling orange strip and the red light reflecting off the streaks of blue clouds, Caoinlin fell back next to him. Nevan creaked along behind, smoking in a well-practiced silence. Though he had not admitted to it, they all knew his health was waning. Each morning he woke to a fit of coughing that lasted longer and longer.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked, keeping her eyes on the road ahead of them.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean—” she pursed her lips. The fiery sunset reflected in wavering blood reds and burning oranges in each of the silver half-moons over her face. “Telling that woman to remember. She doesn’t owe me anything. None of them do. Not even gratitude.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true,” she said sharply. “I would sooner they forget me.”
“You have to know that’s impossible.”
“And you have to know that I make a habit of doing what others think is impossible.”
“Yes, you do,” Fiachrin said. “And what would be the impossible in this case? Exactly?”
Caoinlin’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t respond.
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped.
“It’s your name.”
“Not here,” she said, “Not while I’m wearing this mask.”
“Caoinlin.” He reached over and grabbed her reigns, halting Gauner, who blustered at him and came to a pawing stop.
“How dare you—”
He dismounted and took hold of her arm, until she came down.
“If you weren’t the prince, I would kill you,” she said.
“Is that what you said to Atal?” he said. The moment he did, he wished he hadn’t, partly because it wasn’t what he wanted to say and partly because she punched him ringingly, causing him to stumble back. His eyes burned and the left side of his face felt shattered and then merely began to throb. Both of their horses skittered away. Nevan’s wagon came to a halt, but he said nothing.
“Don’t ever speak of that again,” she growled.
“I won’t,” he said, truthfully, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean--it doesn’t matter, I’m sorry. But this ruse is over, Caoinlin. When we reach Teamair, and we see my father, you’re going to tell him the truth.”
“He doesn’t need to know. No one needs to know.”
“You’re right,” he said, bravely coming back within striking range. “They don’t need to know. You need to tell them. You need them to know.”
She snorted and turned away, gathering Gauner’s reigns though the horse was chary. “You’re wrong.”
He worked his jaw a little, there would definitely be a bruise. What a way to meet his father again, with a black eye. Caionlin hesitated and turned her shoulder toward him. He saw his chance and he seized it, “I’m sorry that I’ve lost your trust and that you no longer believe in me. I hate that mask. I hate that I had some part in creating it. If I’d known . . . what pain this path would bring to you, I would’ve never given you my sword, I would’ve never taught you.”
“Do you hear what you’re saying?” Her eyes blazed like the sun behind him. “Do you know how—”
“Selfish I sound?” He finished her thought. She stared at him, incredulous.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “How can I, Fiachrin, son of King Tireachan, heir, protector, servant to Blackstone, to her people, how can I of all people wish back the suffering and death that Ulic brought upon her shores? It’s simple. All I have to do is look at you.”
She snorted, shaking her head. “You’ve been a frog too long.”
“Look at yourself,” he said. “You can’t even hear your name without wincing. You came here to bring peace and been given nothing but pain in return.”
“I came here . . .” she started strongly and then faltered, her voice wrung out. “Because of you. because I had a promise to keep to you. I didn’t know where you were and this was the only, the last place, I could think to look for you. And I found you here. I found what you left. I used everything you gave me, all you taught me, to be everything you should’ve been. You don’t think I would’ve suffered if I’d stayed in Redthorn? That I wouldn’t be as miserable as a queen married to a man I despised? I was doomed to pain, no matter what I did. There was nothing you could do about that. Better that it be in service, real service. Better that it’s pain from war, from battles and blood, loss and grief. Better that than pain from vacuous uselessness. Yes, I’m in pain, but I fought for this pain. I don’t need reward because I can see the reward, I can feel it. This land is healing. The people are healing.”
“And when do you begin to heal?” he asked. “How long will you keep your wounds open so that you can take in the pain of others?”
“As long as I’m needed,” she said, without conviction. The reigns hung slack in her hand and a slouch overtook her, speaking to an incredible exhaustion that made it appear that she was shrinking inside her clothes.
Fiachrin gave the words a long hard chew before he spit them out.
“I need you Caoinlin,” he said, feeling as bare as the words. “I need you to heal. I need you to be who you truly are.”
“I see,” she said, as if he’d thrown another boulder onto the mountain she was hauling behind her. Except that he was the one who felt crushed.
Caoinlin mounted and fixed her gaze straight and firm.
“We’re losing light,” she said and prompted Gauner forward.