In the chaos, Caoinlin might have been forgotten, as she and Killeen had hoped, if not for the singular brutality of Altan. Bashing her at the back of the skull to the edges of unconsciousness, she had no chance to fight. When she attempted to summon the wolf to her, there was no surge of righteous fury that rose to her aid.
Altan dragged her by her hair away from the fringes of the battle, cold mud soaking through her clothes, copper on her tongue, her mind quailing against the maelstrom of pain.
“Why not kill me?” she sputtered once he had released her, tossing her down into a mucky puddle next to his horse. Altan kicked her in the side and then leaned over her. “You’ll receive no such mercy from me.”
“One of us is going to die,” she growled. “If you want to see me bleed, you’re running out of time.”
Eyes black in rage, he dropped to his knees, slammed her back against the ground. Hands like iron shackles, he throttled her, letting no air into her lungs. Just when she was losing consciousness again, he let go. She gasped and rolled onto her side. He grabbed her underarms and hauled her up.
Come to me, she called to the wolf. Help me.
But her limbs were limp as tattered ribbons. The heat of blood ran down the back of her neck. The plate of her skull felt as if they were struggling to remain glued together. She struggled to breathe for the stabbing in her ribs and now, the pinched throb of her throat.
“I never dared to hope that I would have you like this,” he said into her ear. “Blackstone and Redthorn, win or lose today, are nothing without you.” He heaved her up and threw her onto the back of his horse. “The punishment you must suffer for what you’ve done can’t be rushed.”
They rode away from the battle, the darkness flooding into Caoinlin’s mind.
The wolf had left her.
Caoinlin had no sense of how long they’d traveled or where he’d taken her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She knew it must be someplace remote, as they were never disturbed, and near the ocean because she could hear the water breaking and receding. Sometimes, in those unbearable moments of clarity, she could hear birds squalling, what sounded like thousands of them, overhead.
The shack where he chained her was a constructed of thin, gray boards and reeked of spoiled fish.
He beat her. When his fists grew bruised and swollen, he kicked her. And though she was certain it would be over soon, he managed to keep her alive. He forced water into her mouth and scalding broth down her throat. The beatings took her to senselessness. If he could shock her back with a bucket of frigid water, the beating continued, if not, then she would wake sometime later, in the dark, in her filth, alone when each bruise would take its turn to scream at her.
There was nothing he wanted from her. Nothing but to see her in pain. And that he received, though he did not appear to derive any particular pleasure from it. After a time, even his rage seemed to cool and he went about torturing her in a perfunctory manner. Every so often he would ask,
“Does it hurt?”
The answer was always yes. Whether or not this was the response he desired, she could not tell, did not care. It was the truth.
But then the beatings stopped. For many days, he came and fed her and left. One day, he brought a bucket of water and a brush. He demanded that she scrub the floors of her excrement and then wash. She pushed the filthy water out the door, crawling on all fours and squinted against the mute light. Outside, the terrain was rocky and overlooked a gray expanse of sky that blurred with the gray tumult of water.
“You know this place,” he said, standing just outside the door.
The chains between her wrists pulled taut. This was the first time she’d been untethered from the hook in the wall.
“Not far from here,” he said. “You killed my brother.”
She measured her strength and the distance from her position on the floor to his throat.
“Go on,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “I’ve been waiting. Shouldn’t the great Mhasc Caoin be able to escape this torment? Why don’t you fight back?”
Through lips scabbed and tongue swollen, she rasped. “The Mhasc Caoin is dead.”
He dropped into a crouch. “You are the Mhasc Caoin!” His fist struck his chest. “Fight back!” He seized her hair. “The pain I’m about to will inflict on you will make the last two weeks seem a wonderful dream.”
Two weeks. Was that all? It seemed far longer.
Disgusted, Atlan pushed her away and stormed off to the cabin, leaving her chained in the sand.
If she’d had anything left in her, she might’ve attempted to run. But there was nowhere to run to. The iron shackles around her wrists and ankles would not allow her to get far.
Besides, she could not move for the weight pressing down upon her chest now.
After two weeks, Fiachrin was certainly dead.
She’d never known anyone who had survived the type of infection that had afflicted him.
Once before she had thought she’d failed Fee, her mentor, her friend, her love, and it had nearly killed her. Only the memory of him had kept the Mhasc Caoin from taking her over completely. When she had gotten Fee back, she had shed the Mhasc Caoin and become the queen, so she could be with him. He had hated the masks she wore, the ones she thought she needed to survive. Because a woman couldn’t be a warrior. But the guises, the walls she built to keep Caoinlin and Conlan apart, who had they been protecting?
Fee had only wanted for her to be wholly who she was, the warrior, the queen, the human.
She ached that it was too late to tell him that she understood now.
And that the wolf, that cold, distant, unearthly incarnation of ruthlessness, no longer fought to control her.
As far as she could tell, it had left her completely. She hadn’t even been able to summon the strength to defend herself against two weeks of savagery.
The Mhasc Caoin had saved the entire country, but the wolf would not save her.
It had never come to save her. Only to use her. And now, when she needed it most, it had abandoned her. Left her to suffer the punishment for its crimes.
There on the cold gray sand, before the vast empty slate of ocean, Caoinlin dropped her head to her chest. She was little more than flesh over bones now. Bruised and scabbed, filthy and reeking, clothes torn and blood-stained. She had no weapon, no mask, no wolf, no voice in her head.
She was alone.
But who was she?
Not the mighty Mhasc Caoin. Not the august Queen of Redthorn. Not even the young princess with dreams of becoming a warrior.
She didn’t know. She didn’t know how to answer it. She didn’t have anyone to tell her who she was or should be.
Squeezing her burning eyes shut, she cast her mind out for a lifeline. An answer that would give her strength.
But all she could see was Fiachrin, pale and dying on his cot.
Faint as the scrim of clouded white morning light limning the horizon, she heard him.
“Promise me,” he whispered. “You won’t let the empire fall.”
If she’d had any ability to cry, she would have. She would have sobbed. But her body had no water in it to spare for tears.
Altan wrenched her up and dragged her back into the shack, flinging her back against the far wall. He stood in the doorway, a shadow; light pushing against his outline, blurring his edges.
She remained crumpled, slouched against the wall. A silvery, solitary note ringing in her ears.
“If you had fought back,” he said, coming toward her, “I could’ve respected that. This might have ended days ago. But look at you.”
Her elbows slid back as far as her chains would allow, bracing against the wall.
The knife hung lazily in his hand at his side. He did not fear her anymore.
Her knees drew back toward her chest as he approached.
“You’re right.” He spat, towering over her. “The Mhasc Caoin is dead.”
She shrank from him.
“All I have here is a pathetic, little, princess.”
He took another step.
Her legs shot out, catching his ankle with her shackles, and bringing him toppling him onto her, his neck into the waiting length of chain between her wrists.
The knife, which he had held too loosely, clattered away from them. Her teeth clamped down on his nose. She tore it from his face as she flipped him over and pressed every ounce of her wasting weight into her chains. His windpipe was crushed in seconds.
He never had a chance, not to scream, not even to fight back.
She spat his blood from her mouth, with the end of his nose.
“I have a promise to keep,” she heaved, splattering his own blood to his lifeless, mangled face. “And I always keep my promises.”