In the midst of the Blackstone camp, she dismounted her horse.
She had sent a messenger ahead, so had not been impeded as she entered.
Night was full and clear overhead.
Fires dotted the landscape and reflected in the thousands of eyes that peered at her as she rode in, alone. When she reached Fiachrin’s pavilion, she was sweating.
There was no breeze and the air was balmy, especially in the closely pitched tents scattered over the hills.
A cluster of four men, as well as a number of guards, did not hide the suspicion from their eyes as she handed over her horse’s lead to one of the squires.
Her heart thundered as she approached the waiting commanders.
Killeen stood at their forefront, his expression inscrutable. He had aged a great deal in the few years since she had last seen him. The shadows filled in the lines around his pale blue eyes. There was a heaviness about him, though his muscular frame appeared as fit as ever. He watched her apprehensively and searching her face and her eyes especially.
“Your Highness,” he said, gruffly, “we were just about to send word back to you.”
She let her gaze settle on each man, gauging their demeanors. She knew each of the four commanders well enough to see that they already suspected, but like Killeen, could not believe. They were waiting for her to give them some definitive proof that she was who they feared.
An anxious fluttering sickened her heart and twisted her stomach. She was suddenly aware that word was already out, that every man was informed of Killeen’s suspicions.
She could almost hear whispers circulating from one company to the next.
The Mhasc Caoin, Conlan, could it be? A woman? A queen?
They were watching her, the entire camp, holding their breathes.
“I must speak to your king,” she said.
There was small movement among the men, but nothing that showed if her few words were swaying them one way or the other.
Killeen remained impassive, though studious.
“He is unable to grant you an audience at this time,” Killeen replied.
She took a small step forward and focused on Killeen.
His eyes narrowed and a flicker of something like pain crossed his face. She made no conscious decision to fix her gaze upon him so forcefully and familiarly, but neither did she make an effort to avoid the small gesture of dominance.
“Unable or unwilling?” she demanded.
And she saw it, the instant when Killeen knew, like a spark of fire catching in the dark.
His eyes widened and the color drained from his face. He leaned back from her.
“It should make no difference to you,” a lanky man came out from within the pavilion. His hollowed long face, that looked as though it had been carved from a log of wood, was not one she recognized.
Caoinlin took her cloak in hand and strode past Killeen to meet the tall, imposing man and his stern eyes.
“And who are you?” she asked.
He folded his long arms and lifted his square, stubbled chin.
“I’m afraid that’s none of your concern, my lady,” he said as if speaking to an impertinent child.
“It is not for you to determine what is of my concern and what is not,” she stated. “If you think that you can prevent me from meeting with your king, then you are wrong.”
His thin lips scowled down at her. “If I am not mistaken, you are an enemy to this empire and so I owe you no reconsideration, nor explanation. Guards, please escort this fine woman out of our camp.”
The guards wavered, looking to the four commanders behind her.
None of them moved.
Finally, Killeen seemed to shake off his shock and stepped up beside her.
“Your Highness,” he said, clearnign his throat. “What is it that brings you here at this hour?”
“The army that is moving swiftly towards us,” she answered.
Killeen’s brow furrowed. “Remnants of the western rebels.”
“More than remnants.” She turned to face him squarely, which seemed to discomfit him again. He shifted back, a tangle of emotions wresting visibly across his face.
“Please, Your Majesty,” the tall man said, cloying paternalism soaking his words, “our generals have the situation well in hand.”
Caoinlin did not look at the man, she looked past Killeen, into the shadows, above the heads of the men gathered between the tents and pavilions, past them and among them, where a prowling figure threaded like black mist, eyes flashing like steel in firelight.
The wolf was here. The wolf was always here.
Fee had been right.
She could not hide the wolf. It would not be hidden.
“I have shed the blood of my own country,” she said softly, “in a very long time.”
The generals recoiled and the soliders squirmed. Killeen was pale and immobilized.
She turned back to the man, who seemed to be the only man present who did not realize the shape of her former incarnation. He was looking upon her with something like disapproval.
“Guards?” he said to the two young men on either side of him. “Did you not hear me? Escort her out of the camp, at once.”
Caoinlin’s hand darted out and stole Killeen’s sword from its sheath. She had the point aimed true at the man’s throat before he flinched.
“Are you mad?” His eyes darted to the men behind her. “Why are you all standing there for? Seize her!”
No one moved. They knew the truth. They did not move against her.
“Step aside,” she commanded.
The tall man drew up his thin chest. “I cannot allow you to see the king.”
“Wait,” Killeen stepped forward, holding up his hands beseechingly at Caoinlin. “Doctor, I think we should allow the queen an audience.”
“Doctor?” Caoinlin said. The sword did not waver from the man’s skinny throat.
“I do not think that such a conference would be to the benefit of either the king or the empire,” the doctor said through clenched teeth.
Caoinlin let the sword fall to her side, where the wolf waited, where it would always be waiting.
“Why are you speaking for the king?” she asked.
The doctor eyed her with disdain.
“Your Highness,” Killeen pressed his hands together as if pleading, “understand that we mean no disrespect, but the situation is . . . complicated.”
“More complicated than you or the loyal doctor realizes, general,” she said, tempering her impatience and holding Killeen’s gaze. “Much more complicated.”
Killeen’s shoulders sagged. “I believe you, but our interests are, foremost, in the good of the empire.”
“I think that if you asked your king, he would want to see to me,” she said.
Killeen looked to the doctor, whose scowl did not give way in the slightest.
“That is not possible,” the doctor said.
She turned on him again. “Why is that not possible?”
“You are an enemy of the state,” the doctor said.
A dizzying rush flooded Caoinlin’s head. She turned to Killeen.
“Is he ill?” she asked.
“Your Highness—” Killeen bowed his head to her.
“Tell her nothing,” the doctor said. “Why do you men stand hesitant? Remove this lady from this place immediately.”
“Killeen,” she said, in her calmest voice. “Tell the doctor to stand aside or I will cut his feet from beneath him.”
“How dare you threaten me,” the doctor said, “You have no—”
“Doctor,” Killeen said, “We must permit this . . . lady to see the king.”
“What are you saying? Has she bewitched you?” the doctor said, incredulous.
“Enough of this,” Caoinlin said, overtaken by a building dread in her gut. She threw her elbow into the doctor’s soft middle, doubling him over. She rushed into the pavilion.
The interior was dimly lit by a handful of candles set upon the makeshift desk, a chair and small table. A youth, of no more than twenty, perhaps the doctor’s apprentice, leapt up from his stool as she entered. On a low cot beside him was Fiachrin, waxy pale and slick with sweat.
Behind her, the doctor stumbled in, held back from grabbing her by Killeen. None of the other men followed them in.
“How dare you,” the doctor cried, holding his injured side. He shook Killeen off. “Now you see what weakness has struck our empire and we should hold you prisoner, so that you would not further in danger our cause by spreading word that our sovereign is gravely taken.”
“Gravely?” she murmured, chest too tight and growing tighter.
The slim youth, biting his lip, watched her skittishly. Killeen let out a heavy sigh, his face shadowed by gloom.
“You were right, doctor,” she said, turning to him. “You were right to want to keep this from the enemies of the empire.” She pushed the sword into his hands. “But I am not an enemy.”
She went to the cot and knelt next to Fiachrin. There was a stinging antiseptic smell of herbs about him, mixed with that of acrid perspiration. He was sleeping, a pained crease between his eyebrows. His hair was wet from the fever.
The youth sat down on his stool, his soft round eyes inspecting her, a damp cloth bunched in his hand.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, taking the rag from the youth and mopping Fiachrin’s forehead and neck.
“Tell her,” Killeen said when the doctor did not respond.
Grudgingly, the doctor stepped forward. “There is an infection,” he said, losing some of his biting edge, “in the area of his right intestine.”
Caoinlin’s heart ached. She had seen such infections before, both as a young girl and as the Mhasc Caoin. “You mean,” she placed her hand on her abdomen. “Here?”
“Yes,” the doctor said.
She buried her face in her hand. She had no more strength left. It seemed easier to give up, to be absorbed by the loneliness and despair. The ache was too much to bear. The pain and grief were overwhelming. Fiachrin was dying and she wanted to go with him.
“Mo ghrà.” His hand brushed her cheek.
She looked up, wiping the tears hastily away. His eyes were cloudy and dim.
“Fee.” She took his hand gently, holding it against her face, which seemed cool against his burning skin. She leaned over him and kissed his forehead lightly, smoothing his hair back.
“You look tired,” he said.
“I’m rested enough,” she said. “How do you feel?”
His eyes closed for a long moment.
“There’s a battle coming,” he said, his eyes cracking open again.
“Don’t think on it,” she said.
“The western kingdoms . . .” he murmured.
“I know,” she said, choking back the lump in her throat. “But you must rest.”
“It’s my fault,” he said. “I left too soon.”
“It’s not important.”
“I needed to be with you,” he said, grimacing, “I left too soon.”
“There’s nothing that can be done for it now,” she said.
“You won’t let it crumble,” he said, strongly, “Don’t, Caoinlin, don’t.”
“No, Fee. I won’t.”
“Promise me,” he said. “You won’t let the empire fall.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, bowing her head.
“Mo ghrà,” he said.
“I promise,” she said, opening her eyes. She kissed the back of his hand. “Rest now.”
His murky eyes combed her face.
“I would never leave you,” he said.
She swallowed the pain her throat and leaned over him, kissing him gently.
His eyes slipped shut.
She stood and faced the doctor and Killeen, both standing in the shadows of the pavilion, watching with uncertainty. She came close to the doctor, her voice low.
“Do what you can for him,” she said. She looked to Killeen, cocking her head toward the exit.
Killeen followed her out, where the crowd of on-lookers had swelled.
“We need to speak in private,” she said.
Killeen led her toward another, smaller pavilion, next to Fiachrin’s. She gestured to the three other commanders to come along.
Once inside, Killeen lit the lantern hanging from the center of the ceiling. He turned the flame up, revealing the shine in his eyes.
“It is you,” he said.
Caoinlin ran her hands over the front of her gown. She looked from Killeen to each of the commanders in turn.
“Tell me the plan,” she said.