The messenger was short of breath and red-faced. His large eyes blinked rapidly as he gulped for air, his hands on his thighs. The faint reek of sweat hung around him and was apparent in the dark stains soaking through his maroon shirt.
“Forgive me,” he said, huffing through his words, “my horse took lame. I had to run here.”
Caoinlin and her father were seated in his study, her study now, though she could not think of it as such. The last of daylight was gone, but the breeze through the open doors was warm, ruffling the curtains and fluttering the flames that lit the room in a cozy glow. Her father had been dozing in his chair when the messenger had rushed in, startling the king from his slumber, mid-snore. Caoinlin had been reviewing reports from various ministers and advisors. Each of them, in their own particular manner, requested that she surrender to Blackstone before she humiliated herself and the kingdom. She would have liked nothing better than to comply with their carefully worded appeals. Though her body was sore as it had been the first week, she was long past shocking the handful of men she had recruited to assist her in training. They were quietly observant of her skill and from what she could tell they were not prone to boasting about their queen’s unusual proficiency. If they had been, she was sure that such rumors would have made it back to her via Tadhag, who liked to report all the nasty rumors spread about her, even though she suspected he was one of those who started the spreading.
There were two nights until the match and the worst of the rumors about her were nothing compared to what people were saying about Fiachrin. She worried what they would say if she bested him. And she was unable to think what would happen once his army realized that she and the Mhasc Caoin were one and the same.
She wanted to be like Fee. To trust that enough of them would accept the truth. And not immediately rush upon her and cut her down.
But the wolf had little trust for anyone. And if a sword was drawn upon her, she did not know if she would be able to stop the wolf from responding.
She did not want to kill her own people. Even if they were attacking her out of fear and ignorance.
The lanky, panting messenger was a welcome distraction from her anxious thoughts, even though his face was twisted in near panic.
“Your Highness,” he said, “they’re coming.”
Her father ran his hand over his graying beard and casting a sleepy gaze upon the messenger.
Caoinlin did her best to hold her patience.
“An army,” he said, “from the western kingdoms. They’ve regrouped and they’ve followed Blackstone. They’re coming here.”
Caoinlin followed her father’s lead and remained expressionless.
The messenger dug into the leather bag slung across his narrow chest and withdrew a handful of letters. He held them out to Caoinlin. Before she had the first opened, the messenger said,
“They’ve burned Westbend and many of the smaller villages surrounding.”
At this, Caoinlin’s mouth fell open.
The messenger finally caught his breath.
“They’ve taken the post at the canal and—” he paused, bowing his head, “—killed everyone there.”
Caoinlin’s hands went slack, the letters fluttered into her lap. Ruairi sat up, a fierce glare on his face.
“There’s report,” the messenger said, gesturing to the letters, “of their numbers and their movements. So much as we can tell, since . . . much of the army was called here.”
“Did you see them?” Caoinlin asked, her voice sounded disembodied and faraway.
The messenger nodded. He wrung the strap of his bag as though wringing the neck of a goose.
“I only just kept ahead of them. The last I saw they were about to engage the men stationed at Highrock.”
The sheet of paper in her hands grew heavy and coarse as if it had turned to a slab of stone while she held it.
“Then they will not be far,” she said softly.
The messenger looked bleakly from her to her father.
“They’ve come for Blackstone,” Ruairi said.
Caoinlin nodded, and attempted to focus on the scrawl of writing.
Ruairi pounded the arm of his chair.
“That fool,” he said.
Caoinlin looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Fiachrin,” Ruairi said. “He left the battle unfinished, to come here, to—”
Ruairi’s stony eyes flicked away. Caoinlin stared hard at her father, but he would not look at her.
“You’re dismissed,” Caoinlin said to the messenger.
When he was gone and the door closed behind him, Caoinlin fixed her attention once more on her father.
“To do what, Father?”
Ruairi bit down on his forefinger, his eyes roaming the floor.
“How many are their number?” he asked.
Caoinlin skimmed over the report, from one of her captains, a man most likely dead now.
“He estimates . . .” Her hand dropped to her thigh, her mouth went dry.
Ruairi turned an eye to her.
“A division,” she said. “Ten, perhaps fifteen thousand.”
Ruairi’s skin turned gray. He buried his face in his hand. “He was better off a frog.”
For a moment, Caoinlin thought she had misheard him, but when it was clear that he had said what she thought, her heart quickened and she grew dizzy with fear.
“You knew?” she asked.
“That Fiachrin was Fee?” Ruairi said, still not looking at her. “Oh, yes. I suspected soon after he came to us that he was, perhaps, something other than he appeared. It was not until later that I came to realize his true identity.”
“And you did nothing?” She gathered the letters together tightly in her hands. “You did nothing to help him?”
“What could I do?” Ruairi asked. “I consulted Aislinn, the witch girl, and she said that it was not within my power to help him. Besides,” he tugged at his beard, “I knew that he cared for you and you for him. I had no idea that . . .”
Ruairi waved the question away.
“That’s not important now,” he said, straightening his back. “What is important is that an army has breached our borders and while they may be after Blackstone, they are killing our people—I suspect they believe we have already surrendered and are now under Blackstone rule. Why should they not? It’s well known that our army is of no considerable size. But Blackstone will be outnumbered.”
Caoinlin stood, tossing the letters aside, onto the nearby desk.
“An army of that size cannot be comprised of men solely from the western kingdoms,” she said.
“What are you saying?” Ruairi asked, watching as she started to pace.
“Fiachrin left that front, victorious, but three months ago,” she said, her hands flexing at her sides. “Even if they had time to regroup, rearm, crush the battalions he left behind, and follow him, there simply are not enough men in the western kingdoms to make up such a number.”
“So they hired mercenaries, men from other corners of the Empire.”
“Those provinces have been spending heavily this last year. They would have had to, to put up such a prolonged offensive against Blackstone. And two of them were fairly impoverished as it was, with the floods the last three springs and disease and starvation that followed. They were weak, that they fought at all was surprising. They should not have the capital to finance hiring mercenaries.”
“Then . . .” Ruairi held his hand out, “What?”
“I don’t know,” Caoinlin said. “I don’t know, but something’s not right.”
She went back to the letters on the desk, ripping open the other two and scanning them each.
“Here,” she said, holding the letter out to her father. “From the captain at Westbend, the emissary he sent to meet the invaders never returned.”
“Yes?” Ruairi took the letter from her, scrutinizing it with beetling brow.
“They killed the emissary. There’s more to this army than the tattered remnants of the western rebellion,” she said. “The messenger reported that they have killed everyone they encounter. Even if they thought that Redthorn was under Blackstone rule, they would have no reason to act without prejudice against the people here. And they’re moving fast, they want to catch us off guard.”
“Of course they do,” Ruairi said. “What of it?”
“It’s not usual, that’s what,” Caoinlin said sharply.
“Now,” Ruairi bristled, “You needn’t—”
“They outnumber us,” she said.
“They shouldn’t need to move so swiftly.”
“Perhaps they fear that the rest of Blackstone army will catch up with them,” Ruairi said.
“Perhaps,” she said.
She pressed her fingertips to her temple, massaging the tension there. There was something she was missing. It simply did not make sense. Their numbers were too large. They had moved in too quickly and were moving too quick still. And they were killing unnecessarily.
“It’s not just about victory,” she said, thinking aloud, “It’s as though . . .”
“What?” Ruairi asked, perched on the edge of his seat.
“It’s as though they want Redthorn to suffer,” she said.
“Why? Who would want such a thing?” Ruairi asked, “We have done nothing—”
Caoinlin went to the door.
“Where are you going?” Ruairi asked before she could open it.
“We should not wait for them to come overwhelm us,” she said.
“We have but a two thousand men,” he said.
“And with Blackstone we will have seven,” she said.
“They still outnumber us two to one,” he said.
“And they will expect us to entrench here,” she said.
“No doubt,” he said, “We should remain where we have fortification and supplies. We will hold the palace. We will wait them out.”
“Wait for what?”
“For them to tire, or cede, or make their demands.”
Caoinlin’s hand was hot and slick against the cool metal of the curled brass handle of the latch. “What if all they want is for us to die?”
Her father’s massive shoulders slumped. “That’s. . .” His eyes hardened, “That’s simply ludicrous. They must want something more. We should not interfere, Caoinlin. This is Blackstone’s fight, not ours.”
“This army, whatever its intent, wherever it’s from, has come to our land and killed our people,” she said, shaking. “You would have us do nothing?”
Ruairi raised his chest above his heavy bulge of a stomach, squaring his shoulders, and bearing down upon her.
“You are Queen of Redthorn now,” he said. “You must act as such. If anything, you should join these rebels and help them destroy Blackstone’s army.”
She stared, stunned. “Father—”
“It’s time,” he said, his voice trembling, “that you decide where your loyalties lay.” His stare grew darker. “Are you the sovereign of Redthorn or are you the champion of Blackstone?”
Caoinlin stepped back, as though pushed off balance. Her throat constricted.
Ruairi held his fierce stance.
“If you did not wish to resume your duties here, then you should not have returned,” he said, losing energy as he spoke.
“You knew?” she said, barely above a whisper.
“Knew my own daughter?” he said, as if she had insulted him.
“Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you expose me?” she asked, her heart pounding.
“And put you at risk?” He shook his head.
“But you lost the kingdom,” she said.
“No,” he said, “you did, when you left and fought for another, the kingdom was already lost. And if that’s what you choose to do with it now, then there is nothing I can do to stop you.”
“I would have fought for Redthorn,” she said, “if you had allowed it.”
“I was trying to protect you,” he said.
“I do not require protecting, Father,” she said.
“Oh, no? Was your life as a masked warrior, a traitor to your kingdom, was it so glorious? Is that why you returned here? Is that why your every day is clouded and somber-hued? What have your courage and your accomplishments earned you?”
Tears stung her eyes. “You call me a traitor?”
He sat down heavily in his chair and looked on her with deep sadness. “You fought against us. What else can I call you?”
“If I am a traitor,” she said, quaking from within, “then why give me the crown?”
“What choice did I have?” he asked. “I hoped that you would bring to bear in your homeland some of the legendary leadership skills you displayed for Blackstone. And that, perhaps, you would find a way to maintain autonomy for Redthorn, when Fiachrin came after you. You were my last best hope. I’m sorry to see that I was wrong.”
“You were not wrong,” she said, swallowing back her tears. “I was wrong to think that Redthorn needed its autonomy. I only refused to surrender for your sake, for your pride. I’m going to do what I should have done from the start. Every kingdom is vulnerable when we are fractured. And if we continue fight one another, then we will leave ourselves open to renewed incursion and invasion. That is why I conquered those petty and bloated monarchs. The people are safer when the island is united and not subject to bear the burden of every passing grudge held by their master when his arrogance is bruised.”
Her father’s face darkened in red tones. “You should not speak to me thus—”
“I will speak to you as you need to be spoken to,” she railed. “I’m not here to protect you, Father. That was my mistake. I’m here to protect the people. And they are being slaughtered. And you would have me stand by, do nothing, or worse, join those that do us injury. Only to prove that I am loyal to you, above all others.”
“It is loyalty to your homeland!”
“I am loyal to my homeland! This island is my homeland. The boundaries were set not by men, but by the forces of nature, by the ocean on all sides. And I refuse to allow the mass of people born from this land to suffer any further for the pride and greed of a few. Do you know how I led so many, with such success?”
“You are the Queen of Redthorn!” Spittle flew from his lips.
“I gained their loyalty,” she said, a cold calmness settling over her, “by doing what I should and not always what was expected, but what was necessary. And I never sought personal glory or gain for my actions, I never allowed my want to go ahead of the greater need.”
“And I have? Do you accuse me of some misdeed?” He gripped the arms of his chair so tightly the wood groaned. “Have I not ruled justly and been known for my benevolence? Have I not endeavored to equanimity for all subjects? Who would come before me and accuse me of failing to hear their cries, of putting my pride before their well-being? Who I ask?”
Caoinlin firmed her quivering chin. “Only me, Father.”
Ruairi’s mouth hung open, his expression was pained, as though she had stabbed him.
“But this is not about us,” she said, moving to the door. “I’m sorry, Father, that I was never who you wanted me to be.”