Three nights passed. On the fourth, she huddled on a flat stone at the edge of the pond, her cloak drawn close against the chill breeze. Heavy clouds tromped across the sky, stomping on the stars and allowing only the briefest glimpses of the waxing moon. She had stayed later than usual, not because she expected him to come, but because she did not look forward to the long night ahead of her.
In three days, they would meet on the battlefield.
He might have been standing there for some time, in the dark crevices between the trees, before she saw him. His clothes were as black as his hair. But when she caught a glimpse of him, his shape became evident to her, her eyes gathering every scrap of meager light and moved them to illuminate him. She rose, clutching her cloak tight to her. Her hands trembled, palms sweaty.
He stepped into the clearing, moving as though it was unimportant whether he came closer or not. There was a forced air of indifference about him, but she saw through it easily. It was what was beneath that which caused her difficulty: the hurt. The hurt she had caused him, mingled with the anger. She had trouble going beyond it; they both did. Although, he appeared to be faring better than she.
“How long have you been there?” she asked.
His gaze seemed to lose focus on her.
She swallowed, hard.
“I’ve missed you,” she said, unable to catch her breaking voice, “it seems you’re all I ever think of. When I wake up, when I’m lying in bed, when I dream.”
“Still hearing voices, are you?” he said, as if from a great distance.
She felt the sting, even though she’d prepared for it.
“Voices,” she said, quashing her pride, “don’t have fingers that catch in my hair. They don’t have arms that hold my body. They don’t have a body that I . . . ache to be held to.”
He glared at her, seizing her with his gaze. And she swayed, burning.
“But if your voice is all I’m given,” she said, “it will be more than I deserve.”
His eyes broke away from her, jaw tightening.
She released her cloak. Her gown was of stiff, dark green fabric, it rustled as she moved. She could not breathe as she bent one knee and then, the other. On her knees, she took one bracing inhale and looked up at him. He stared at her, taken aback.
“Let me surrender,” she said. “Not Redthorn, not the queen; me, to you. I was wrong, Fee. I was wrong to lie to you. I was wrong to . . .”
Her knees were pained by the weight bearing down on them. She sat back on her heels, her hands turned up in her lap, limp. She was exhausted. Not from the weeks of training, but from everything. From fighting and striving and flexing her will against all others. She was tired of being the strong one, of being the hero, of wearing masks, one after the other. Even when she lowered herself, surrendered, she was possessed by that same merciless passion that had driven her to take up a sword, to put on the mask, to be more and better and always moving. She had tried to run from it, tried to hide from it, but it ferreted her out and tormented her until she was forced to her knees, forced to speak each bare truth, forced to beg, whatever it took.
She wanted to be with him. Nothing would stop her. Even if she had to beg.
Her hands closed, her nails bit into the skin.
“I need you,” she said. “I don’t know how to go on without you.”
Fiachrin took a deep breath that seemed to fill his entire body. He ran his hand over his mouth and shut his eyes. And then he turned round and started to walk away.
She stumbled as she got to her feet. The pain was immediate and acute. She was too stunned to cry.
She rushed after him, stepping in his path and halting him, her hand on his chest. His heart was bounding.
The tears started.
“What do you want?” she demanded. “What do you want me to do?”
Tentative, his hand reached up and closed over hers.
“Please, tell me what I can do, what I can say, whatever you want, all you need do is ask.”
His fingers ran over her cheek and into her hair, sending shivering pulses through her. His expression was remote, shadowed and resistant. Inside her was a force like charged metal, sparking and bending her.
She leaned in and placed her lips against his, kissing him lightly.
He was still.
She pulled back; knowing that he would not respond did not make it hurt any less. And feeling that made her all the more repentant for having done it to him. Her unyielding desires might have been exhausting, they might have led her to hurt, to wound, to kill, but resisting them was worse, fear of them had made her cruel. She sank into the mire she had created, resigning herself to suffering through it as long as he needed her to suffer.
His hands were loose around hers. And they flexed and tightened, seizing.
He kissed her.
She forgot to breathe. When she inhaled again, it was breathing for the first time, and she thought that she would never want air again if it did not smell like him.
His arms wanted her closer, and she was ready. And when his lips were tearing at her skin, moving down her jaw, she was taken up in the overwhelming sense of relief. Relief that she could feel, that she was feeling and what she was feeling was him.
He halted, his breath quick and body thrumming against hers.
“I’ve always known you’ve loved me, Caoinlin,” he said, catching his breath, “I never doubted that.”
“I do love you,” she said, eagerly, readily. “I’m sorry I said I didn’t.”
He kissed her again.
“You’re making this very difficult,” he murmured.
“It doesn’t have to be difficult,” she said, “marry me.”
He smiled. “I will.”
She smiled, too, more broadly than she had known she could.
A shadow passed over his face. “But we’re still going to fight, Caoinlin.”
She stepped back, so she could see the whole of his face. “What? Why—"
“I brought five thousand soldiers,” he said.
“I know,” she said, “and going through with this will render you a laughing stock; they’ll lose respect for you. People think you’re a madman already.”
“Did you recognize the men in my retinue?”
She inched further back, the brief joy that had burst forth vanishing like the frail seedlings of a clock flower in a strong wind.
“Yes,” she answered.
“You may recognize many of the others,” he said. “I feel confident they will recognize you.”
Her hands went cold.
“Every one of them,” he persisted, “served you. Every one has a story to tell about the Mhasc Caoin and they do. Every one claims to have seen you in battle, though I suspect some for boasters. I know that they all followed you, received orders from you, saw you, in the mask.”
Her head began to pound. “Fee—”
He clasped her face between his hands.
“I love you, Caoinlin,” he said. “You will be Queen. You will rule this island, but not because you married me. This empire is yours. It always has been. And tomorrow, everyone will know that.”
He placed a lingering kiss on her lips and broke from her.
“And what if they don’t want to know?” she said up to him, thinking then of Killeen, knowing, but not believing. “They need the Mhasc Caoin, Fee. They need those stories. If they learn the truth—”
“Are you afraid?” he asked. “Of the men whose lives you saved? Of the people whose children you freed from terror? What do you think they can do to you? What can they take from you? You do them a disservice by not believing in them. But not giving them a chance to prove themselves.”
“Some won’t accept—”
“The truth is like the wolf, Caoinlin. Either you get out of its way or it will cut you down. It does not care about acceptance. Ignorance is no shield against it, no sword. There will always be fools. You never cared what they thought before, why do you care now?”
He turned and started away.
“Don’t leave,” she said, as he departed.
“I never leave you,” he said, retreating into the tree line. “This fight will be real. I’ll know if you’re not giving it your all.”
She rolled her shoulders back, her voice small. “And what if I win?”
Fee paused for a moment, she could not see his face, and yet, she suspected he was smiling.
Then he was gone.