The last week of the journey, the weather took a decidedly bitter turn. Persistent sheets of wind were full of grains of ice scoured their skin like coarse sand against soft wood. All color leeched from the world, so that the sky, the land, even the people appeared to be coated in a silty layer of chalk dust. Less than a hundred miles from Teamair, Nevan took to a bed in the inn and was wracked with coughing fits that left him as sunken as the distant orb of weak light that might have been the sun. He swore he was not done with life yet, and at the end of a week, was showing signs of improvement, primarily cursing Caoinlin every time she attempted to offer care.
“Give that spoon to me. I’ve got hands, haven’t I?” He snapped when she attempted to feed him a glistening thick stew. He groped for the spoon and once he’d taken it, he waved it at her menacingly. “What are you still doing here? Haven’t you got somewhere you need to be? Both of you?”
“You’re not well,” Caoinlin said.
“And what would you know about it?” Nevan said, a brown stream of soup dribbling down his chin. “How many times have I wrested you from the hands of death? More than you can recollect. I know when I’m beaten and that’s not this match. Go. There’s a father in need of his son.”
Grudgingly, Caoinlin acquiesced. Fiachrin suspected that it had more to do with her discomfort with him than Nevan’s wishes. They were scarcely speaking.
On the road to Teamair, they could not speak, both were bundled so thickly against the sleet and wind that it was impossible. Not that Fiachrin quite knew what to say to her anymore—things had indeed changed.
Freezing fog shrouded Teamair’s walls in a damp haze that crystallized on contact with any surface, mud, stone, skin. The horses were already fed up from three days frigid travel, once they came within sight of Teamair, the horses began to trudge balefully.
Fiachrin dismounted and Caoinlin followed suit. They walked through the gates, which stood wide open. The guards snapped to attention when Caoinlin appeared and attempted to put on a guise of alertness.
The wool wrapped around Fiachrin’s mouth and nose stuck to his skin. Droplets of ice clung to his eyelashes like frozen tears. They could see a few feet in front of them and little else. That was enough for him. Had he been able to see more than he might not have been able to go forward, he might’ve been overwhelmed. As it was, every step brought a new revelation.
Familiar streets emerged in increments, allowing him time to savor each doorway, each turn. Someone was baking a venison pie, the aroma seeping through the cracks of their house and warming Fiachrin’s mouth. Few people were out, and for this, he was glad, too. Because the faces of the buildings were enough to render him choked.
He was home. Truly home.
The Caiseal was a mountain in the fog, a massive black smudge. The gates opened for Caoinlin. Soldiers called to her in greeting, their voices echoed off the walls and eliciting more calls until the whole of the castle was booming a greeting to her. Wiry stable boys popped out of the crevices and guided the horses away, regarding Caoinlin in awe.
A wooden-faced sergeant ran out of the castle and saluted. Weary, Caoinlin returned the salute. His chiseled in eyes gave Fiachrin a quick glance, but didn’t linger on him, as Fiachrin’s face was mostly obscured. Not that Fiachrin recognized the young man, he looked little older than the stable boys.
“The king is expecting you,” he said, his voice high and thin.
“Tell him I will report immediately,” Caoinlin said.
“He said you may eat and rest—”
“I will report immediately,” Caoinlin repeated
The sergeant nodded and rushed away again.
For the first time, in what seemed days, Caoinlin looked up at him. “After you, Your Highness.”
The hall smelled the same, perhaps, a bit more damp and stuffy than before, but the stones held the sharp chilled breath of the mountains still.
Everything was as he remembered. The portraits of his ancestors as austere and serious as he’d left them. The tapestries, darker for lack of cleaning, but unmoved.
They left a trail of water on the stone floors as they walked.
A rubicund footman came toward them, but Caoinlin waved him away.
Fiachrin couldn’t remember ever having youthful male servants. They’d always been required elsewhere. He started toward the Receiving Hall, but Caoinlin’s gloved hand gripped his arm and she pointed beyond it, to a close, dark hallway.
“Your lips are blue,” he said, forgetting about his homecoming for a moment. “You should take off that mask.”
The silver looked as though it were dripping. Her gray eyes were bloodshot and bleary.
“The war room,” she said. “He’s always in the war room.”
They moved down the narrow hall, a poorly lit passage with low ceilings and the vague odor of mildew. They stopped in front of a heavy wooden door, lit on either side by fat candles behind thick, yellow glass.
“You go in first,” Fiachrin said. He pulled off his gloves and ran a hand through the untidy mane of black hair, it was past his shoulders now. He should’ve had it cut, but had been too preoccupied to think of it. A hot burbling sickened his stomach and he tugged off the heavy leather coat and the wool one under that, feeling fevered. He tossed them onto a heavy polished bench a recessed into the wall behind him.
Once he’d flung the last of his gear aside, he turned back, Caoinlin was watching him.
“Tell me how I broke the spell.”
“What?” Fiachrin’s addled brain tripped over her question. He was about to see his father again, after thirteen years, what did she want to know? What had she asked?
What did she want to know that, now of all times?
“Tell me how I broke the spell,” she repeated.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his doublet. “Can we discuss this later?”
“What’s to discuss?” Caoinlin persisted. “I did break the spell, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” Fiachrin said, cringing. He didn’t want to tell her like this, in a dark passageway, when his nerves were threatening to upend his stomach and he was slick with sweat, while his fingers and toes were not yet thawed from the journey. And not when she was wearing that mask.
“Fee,” she said, just as she might have in the past, it was the closest thing he’d heard to her old voice in such a long time. “How?”
“The kiss,” Fiachrin said. “The kiss did it.”
“That was all?” She said, obviously disturbed that it might’ve been so simple. “All you needed was a kiss?”
“Not exactly,” Fiachrin said. “It had to be . . . it had to be someone with a royal bloodline.”
“A princess’s kiss,” she murmured, as though this bothered her even more deeply.
“And. . .” His teeth clamped together like they might be able to keep him from receiving further emotional injury from her.
Why couldn’t he just say it? Would hearing the truth, hearing him tell her the truth, add to her struggle? Maybe she needed to hear the truth. If she hadn’t admitted it to herself already. And if she had, then it wouldn’t come as a surprise. But he suspected that she was not yet fully aware of the truth, even though it was deeply, most personally, her truth.
“It had to be a kiss, from someone of a royal bloodline, someone who, despite my outward appearance . . . loved me. Who had fallen in love with me despite how I appeared.”
Her reaction was non-reaction. He didn’t get a chance to feel disappointment or relief, because she turned and opened the door. He stepped back, into the shadows, his heart squeezing painfully. It wasn’t as if he’d told her that he loved her. Just the opposite. She was the one who’d admitted to it, whether or not she’d intended to, so why was he the one who felt as though he was the one who’d bared his soul and been rebuffed?
She left the door open. The aroma of fire and his father’s musk.
“Your Highness.” Conlan’s voice.
“Safe journeys, general?” His father’s voice. The callous of it was thicker, rougher, but it was his deep, roomy voice. Fiachrin bowed his head and closed his eyes against the tears.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Well, sit down. I’ll hear your report,” Tireachan said, warmly.
“Perhaps it can wait, sire.”
“There’s something more pressing.”
Fiachrin’s pulse galloped.
“What can you mean, man? Out with it.”
“There’s someone, here to see you, sire.”
“Someone? What is this about, Conlan, you’re behaving most strangely. You haven’t been at the drink have you?” Tireachin scolding.
Fiachrin smiled and wiped away his tears.
“No, my lord,” Caoinlin said. “I think you will want to give him audience.”
“Who? Where is he?”
“Outside the door, my lord.”
“Well, have him in then.”
Fiachrin took a deep breath and walked through the door.
Caoinlin sidestepped to allow him to pass.
Tireachan’s forearms rested on the broad round table. His hair had grown long, hanging around his gaunt face. He’d lost weight and color.
For a moment, he looked at Fiachrin and didn’t react, as though he wasn’t really seeing him at all. His face, his eyes, a perfect blank.
Fiachrin, too, felt nailed to the floor, unable to come any closer. Unable to breathe.
The war room was dark, the lamps burned dim, as the furniture looked much older and more worn than Fiachrin remembered. And there was his portrait, above the fireplace, looking blandly down at him. Fiachrin couldn’t say that it was even really him, not anymore.
When his father failed to move, not even his bushy eyebrows twitched, Fiachrin gathered himself and bowed.
“Father,” he said.
This jolted Tireachan from his seat. A disbelieving expression creased his features.
“Fiachrin?” He breathed. “Is it?”
“Yes,” Fiachrin said, emotion thickening his response. “It’s me. I’m home.”
Tireachan took a few steps around the table and then halved, his body folding in creaking pops and snaps. Caoinlin and Fiachrin rushed to him. He’d landed hard on his hands and knees. Fiachrin knelt beside him, gripping his arms, tears rolling down his cheeks freely. Tireachan groped at Fiachrin, as a blind man gropes for a handhold and when he had him, his fingers bruising Fiachrin’s arms, he stared into Fiachrin’s face through a window of blurred with tears.
“My son,” Tireachan breathed in wonder. “My son is alive.”
He embraced Fiachrin, their knees pinned to the floor.
Caoinlin stepped away.
Fiachrin held his weeping father, and was happy.
No matter that his father felt like a marionette, wood loosely hinged and draped over in thin clothes. A time would come, later, when he would take-in the sallow stretching of his father’s skin over his skull, the two reaching toward each other. And the retreating of his father’s eyes, the spheres receding into the sockets like the moon into a cloud bank. For now, he was content to feel his father’s arms and be near his earthy, raw scent. His father’s hands scrabbled up Fiachrin’s arms as though he were climbing a rubble-strewn hill. They caught on his face and clung to it.
“Where have you been?” Tireachan asked. “What happened to you? Are you back from the dead?”
Fiachrin guided his father to his feet, lifting himself and thus, his father.
“Come now Father,” Fiachrin said, leaking a smile. “You don’t believe in such things.”
Tireachan blinked and came out of his trance. He laughed, rumbling like a volcano, and clapped Fiachrin’s cheek.
“No, too right, too right,” Tireachan said, beaming and streaming. “But why? Why have you been gone so very long? How have you returned to me?”
“Gormlaith, Father, she was a sorceress, she bewitched me,” Fiachrin said.
Tireachan boggled. “Gormlaith? Surely not, but she was with child-”
“A child given to her by a man she much preferred to me,” Fiachrin said. “But it was long ago.”
“You look the same,” Tireachan said wonderingly, “You look just the same.”
“I haven’t aged,” Fiachrin said. “Though I’ve been alive all this time.”
“How is that—”
“Father,” Fiachrin interjected, taking his father’s papery hands in his. “It was your champion who restored me.”
“Conlan?” Tireachan searched out his champion and found her standing by the wall, impassive. “You did this? You found my son? You returned him to me?”
Caoinlin inclined her head, her eyes were murky like the freezing fog suffocating Teamair.
“I have nothing,” Tireachan said, he moved toward Caoinlin, but was unwilling to release Fiachrin’s hand and Fiachrin did not move. “Whatever I have, whatever I can give you, ask. All you need, for the rest of your life, for all your children’s lives. I am in your debt and service. Tell me and I swear it will be done.”
Fiachrin drew his father back from Caoinlin. He drove his gaze against hers and she wavered. Fear emerged in hot bubbles from the freezing surface of her eyes. Her lips parted, the entreaty never passed them, but he knew what she wanted. But he was not his father, he had not promised to give her what she wanted.
“I think, Father,” he said, skirting the icy ledge, reaching for Caoinlin. “That the Mhasc Caoin might take this moment, when you are at your humblest and in deepest gratitude, to remove the mask.”