The mask was chill against her bare cheek. She did not wear the coif beneath it, nor had she cut her hair, plaiting it to her scalp as was the custom of warriors in Redthorn. The silver half-moons had been tarnished but required little to polish them again.
“Con—Your Highness,” Killeen said. “Are you certain?”
“I’ve never been certain, general,” she answered, watching the sun sink below the horizon. “Does the truth frighten you?”
Killeen kept his horse still, his face expressionless. “I always knew you were human,” he said. “I took courage from that . . . from you.”
“Your courage came from none but yourself.” She glanced over at him. “No one can conquer our fear for us.”
“I am not afraid,”—he inclined his head—“your highness.”
Without a parting word, she spurred the sleek mare to a gallop, over the dales and copses of trees between. The hills were serene, bathed in coppery light.
But the silence was unnerving, not even the insects were singing.
For a time, all she could hear was her heart and rhythmic churning of earth by the horse’s hooves. But soon enough, another sound began to build, growing steadily louder so that she not only heard it but felt it, deep in her chest like thunder. The rumbling cadence of an army moving toward her, even as the sun fell and the strata of darkness fell in layers upon the horizon.
Before she reached them, her horse skittered to a halt, rearing back. A half a dozen men closed in around her, the metal of their blades shimmering in the dark light of night.
“I knew it,” he declared. “I always knew it was you.”
Caoinlin kept her mouth closed.
The army’s progress had been stalled by her appearance. They did not set up camp, but merely collapsed where they stood, not removing weapons or boots. They bound her hands and took her weapon, removing the mask and handing it over to their commander. A tall, lean young man, near her age. His hair was auburn, straight and long, his lips fleshy like his father’s had been, but his face stronger than either of his parents, his eyes laden by a straining weight, but holding stubborn against its crushing force. At the sight of her, he appeared to swell, his nostrils flared and his fists flexing.
She felt the swing before he unleashed it and braced for the impact of his fist against her face. She held her ground, prompting him to throw another punch into her gut which dropped her to her knees as the pain went from explosive to dull and radiating.
He grabbed her hair and yanked her head back, spitting as he spoke.
“That’s just the beginning of what I’m going to do you,” he said. “For the shame you brought to my brother and my kingdom. For daring to come back and kill my family!”
“Brogan was a pig,” she spat, “it was time he for his slaughter.”
Altan, King Aodhan’s youngest son, and Brogan’s brother, shoved her head down and kicked her in the back. She sprawled flat on her stomach.
Huffing, he stood over her. Would he kill her then, or if he would forge the patience to make her death as horrifying as he boasted?
All those years ago, she had killed Brogan and seized the kingdom of Whiteplain, without a thought for Altan.
The reports had stated that the eastern kingdoms had been relatively stable under Blackstone control. But, in fact, he had merely been waiting.
With Blackstone stretched thin by the war with the western kingdoms and Fiachrin’s attentions elsewhere, Altan seized his opportunity for vengeance against both Blackstone and Redthorn.
“My lord.” A bear of a man with a thick beard he jogged up, followed up a handful of weary-looking nobles, Caoinlin recognized him as a former duke of Lakegreen, but his name was lost in the swell of pain. “What is the meaning of this?”
“The Mhasc Caoin.” Altan pushed the mask into the man’s heavy hands.
The duke stared at the silver mask and then down at Caoinlin, squinting through the wan light provided by the torches of guards surrounding them. He passed the mask to the fish-eyed lord behind him, who she knew to be one of King Gaibrial’s former retainers.
“Had to grovel to old enemies for help, did you, Altan?” She barked out the laughter, despite the throbs of pain bursting from her side—broken rib most likely. Each breath was a fresh blow, a dizzying, queasy wave.
He kicked her swiftly in the stomach. The duke put his hand on Altan’s chest, holding him back too late.
“That is not the Mhasc Caoin,” he said. “That is Ruairi’s daughter. The Queen.”
“They’re one and the same, you imbecile,” Altan spat, tearing away from the man.
“That’s impossible,” the duke declared. “I fought the Mhasc Caoin myself. He flipped the mask back to the Altan. “He was a warrior, not a woman.”
“I knew the princess before she vanished,” Altan said. “And when I saw the Mhasc Caoin on the battlefield, there was not a doubt in my mind.”
Altan seized Caoinlin’s hair again and dragged her up to her knees and then took her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. He fastened the mask roughly around her head, tightening it too much so that her swelling eye and jaw screamed out, but she remained silent, choking down the agony. He grabbed a torch from one of the nearby guards and pressed the flames close to her face; the stink of the twallow sucked the last of her fitful breath. She coughed pitifully and painfully.
“Ask yourself why a man needs to wear a mask in the first place,” Altan snarled.
The noblemen exchanged grim looks.
“We’ve gone along with you thus far,” a slender, white-haired lord she knew from times long ago said. “ Often against our better judgments, but our men are spent. We make camp here.”
“That’s not the plan!” Altan thrust the torch back to a startled guard. “We’re closing in! We keep moving, we can overrun them by nightfall tomorrow. They won’t expect a night attack, nor one that comes so soon.”
“Our men will drop dead from exhaustion before we get there,” the lord argued. “Blackstone may not expect us to attack at night, but it won’t matter if they’re surprised and outnumbered, when our men are in such a miserable state.”
Altan rushed at the fish-eyed lord, grabbing his coat. “We didn’t come this far to miss our opportunity for want of sleep. My men are as tired as yours, but they know that in a few days, this battle will be over and that their lands are safe from foreign northern kings and their whore masquerading as a warrior.”
“Release him,” the duke said, inserting his arm between the two men and disengaging Altan from the flimsy lord.
“You’re mad!” the lord said as soon as Altan released him. “I’ve suspected it from the first and now I know it’s true. This woman is no more the Mhasc Caoin than I am. And whatever grudge you bear her, you bring yourself no honor by treating her in such a heavy-handed fashion.”
“Then what was she doing with this?” Altan asked, snatching the mask once more from her face, snagging a tangle of hair as he did, ripping it from her head. “And this?” He took her sword from another of the bleary-eyed guards, their faces etched by skepticism. “Why did she come here? Bearing these things?”
The group turned to her quizzically.
“I came with a message,” she said, forcing her tongue into coordination. “Lay down your arms and surrender or the Mhasc Caoin will destroy you. Every last one.”
“Ha!” Altan’s spit flew across her cheek. “You’re not going to destroy anyone.”
“Why would they send you?” the duke asked, ignoring Altan.
“You’ve killed the other messengers,” she said. “Perhaps they thought that you would show greater mercy to a woman of noble blood.”
The duke and lord exchanged guilty glances. She wondered if they would have broken from Altan, given a chance. But at that moment, shouts of warning rang from the sentries.
And in the dead of night, Blackstone and Redthorn attacked. It did, indeed, catch their enemies off-guard.