There was a cottage, not far from the shack.
Altan’s horse, that had carried her here, that had heard her screams over the last weeks, gazed at her when she stumbled toward it, chains clanking, as if to say, about time. Inside the cottage, she found the key to her chains and clean clothes and food.
Many days passed. She mourned for Fiachrin, letting herself feel as helpless and weak as her grief demanded. She cried until her head ached and there was nothing left to do but get up and eat and move. And she grew stronger.
Amongst Altan’s things were her mask and her sword.
As the tide went out on the seventh day, she walked to the edge of the water, to the edge of the land that had bore her; that had needed a princess to become a wolf to save it from the invading forces brought by the ocean. The sun pooling red at its belly, its crown blazing gold.
Caoinlin did not say goodbye, she did not shed any tears. She pitched the mask as far out into the outgoing tide as her sore, stiff body would allow, praying only that this land would never need to see it again.
A full week, she traveled, and saw no one, heard no sounds other than her own. Except for the horse, whose heart she could feel beating and blusters she woke her in the mornings.
She began to think that maybe she had not survived after all, and that she was nothing more than a ghost cursed to wander the same stretch of empty road, eternally, fruitlessly trying to get home.
There was dew on the ground and stars in the sky, but the living eluded her, as if fleeing her approach. The sun would warm the branches, but no birds would sing.
Worse were the villages. They were deserted—laundry on the line, milk in the buckets, eggs in the nests, but no person, no cattle or chickens, as if everyone had abruptly fled. She did not linger long in these left-off places, the air that still vibrated with voices only just silenced.
There were any number of reasons for this, she thought. But she could think of none that rang true.
Westward, she went, each day less certain of her own vitality.
Across Redthorn’s borders, she left the main road, cutting through vacant pastures and budding orchards. She made her way through the forests, to the pond, Clearspring. There she dropped off her clothes and dived to the bottom, over and over again, until she found it, half-buried in the mud.
When she emerged, she gasped, heart pounding at the sight of another living person.
“Your Highness.” Aislinn, the witch woman, curtsied, holding out her blue, homespun skirt. Her different colored eyes glittered in the afternoon light.
Caoinlin stepped out of the water, dripping and naked, holding a muddy sword.
“Welcome home,” Aislinn said.
“Am I dead?” Caoinlin asked.
Aislinn smiled. “No.”
“Where is everyone?”
“There is someone you must see before anyone else.” Aislinn stepped closer, the air of lavender and honey about her.
Caoinlin brought the sword up and laid it across her palms, tears in her eyes. “I have to return this.”
“He is not yet in the ground,” Aislinn said. “I kept him for you. So you can say farewell.”
Aislinn reached up, her fingertips grazed Caoinlin’s temple.
“Close your eyes, Your Highness.”
Caoinlin closed her eyes. The world spun around her, her head swinging. A strange wind rushed by her, but did not seem to touch her. Her breath was stolen, snatched from her lungs and then, Aislinn said,
“Open your eyes.”
The witch woman stepped away.
Caoinlin’s lips parted.
She stood in the great hall. The pink marble gleamed. The gilded doors stood open to the late spring sunset. The air warm sange fresh and faint with flowers, twined in garlands from the ceilings and around the pillars, and strewn in heaps up the dais at the far end of the hall, where a shrouded figure was lain in state upon a plinth.
She was dry and clothed, dressed in long white surcoat embroidered in gold, underneath were loose white pants that gave the appearance of a skirt. Her sword was secure at her waist, the belt a new soft brown, etched with gilt. In her hand was Fiachrin’s sword, cleaned of the mud and sheathed in a new leather scabbard, emblazed with Blackstone’s crest. Before she had left all those years ago, she had thrown it back into the pond, knowing that she could not use it without drawing attention and not wishing anyone else to use it . . . not until she had found him and could return it to him.
She turned to Aislinn, who was just has she had been, rose-cheeked and serene.
“How?” Caoinlin breathed.
In her hands was a crown woven from tiny blue, star-shaped flowers and small sprays of white buds.
“If you’ll allow me, my Queen,” Aislinn said, holding out the crown.
“Forget-Me-Nots,” Caoinlin murmured.
“And Baby’s Breath.” Aislinn smiled. “For eternal love.”
Tears slid down Caoinlin’s cheeks as Aislinn placed the crown on her brow. Then they turned to the dais.
Aislinn trailed Caoinlin to the other end of the hall. The witch woman knelt at the foot of the steps and bowed her head.
Caoinlin continued to the top, white lilies crushed under her feet. Her tears fell silently. She was not bent by them nor lashed, but marked in some deep place by their shedding, as stone is scarred over the years by the rain.
The shroud was gauzy white, but the skin beneath was flush still, as if only having lost life moments before. Caoinlin’s chest hitched when she looked upon the face composed in peaceful rest before her, the sword dropped from her hand into the bed of flowers.
Her blood churned in head.
She tugged back the shroud. And there was a face she knew, but not the one she expected.
“Father?” New tears came then, with a new wound.
It was her father on the stone, not Fiachrin.
Her fingers curled at his chest that no longer rose. She touched her father’s cool cheek and searched his face as if he could answer her question.
But it was Aislinn, who joined her on the dais, and answered the question that Caoinlin was too bereft to speak.
“Years ago, your father called upon me once. Your mother was ill and pregnant. Neither you nor your mother would have survived the birthing. He pleaded with me to save you both. I warned him. I warned him that Death does not trade lightly. But he was willing to pay the price.”
The witch’s eyes searched Caoinlin’s tear-wet face.
“He never told me that,” she said, stunned.
Aislinn smiled. “He did not know the true cost of that barter. What his daughter would have to do to repay it.”
Caoinlin’s legs were weak, she clung to her father’s shroud and stared, uncomprehending, at his pale lips.
“I did not think our good king would ever call upon me again,” the witch went on, “but he did. When Blackstone’s king lay dying in his camp. Your father summoned me. But he was too late. Death had come for Fiachrin. Your father again pleaded with me to do something.” Aislinn touched Caoinlin’s shoulder. “But I had to explain to him that death never leaves empty-handed.”
Caoinlin fell to her knee, her hand catching her father’s. She pressed her head to the cold stone and shut her eyes against the pallid image of her father that was burned into her sight.
Aislinn lowered herself before Caoinlin.
“This, he did for you.”
“For me?” Caoinlin held tight to her father’s hand.
Aislinn nodded, lifted Fiachrin’s fallen sword and held it out to Caoinlin.
“He knew,” Aislinn said, “what you were about to lose. He knew you would return.”
Caoinlin, confused still, clasped the sword, but Aislinn did not release it. The sword reverberated in Caoinlin’s hand, as if echoing with thunder. The vibration passed through her skin into her blood and then deeper, until it was she was quaking in her marrow, but she could not let go of the sword, nor look away from the one calm, steady eye and the other churning tempest eye of the witch woman.
“I am bound to this land,” Aislinn said, her voice sounded from within Caoinlin, like Caoinlin was a cavern and Aislinn had fallen into the depths, “Just as you are, my Queen. From it our blood and to it our blood. I drew from it to save you and your mother and you gave back what you were given, so much that you were nearly lost again. But the land needs you to live more than ever, because what you will be is far greater than what you have been.
“Your father could not stop Death,” Aislinn said, “and I cannot release you from the wretched curse that haunts you. But like your father, who traded his life for another’s, I can too broker a trade.”
Aislinn placed one of her hands over Caoinlin’s and it pulsed as if it was Aislinn’s very heart that was holding Caoinlin’s hand. Caoinlin flushed with the heat of it.
“What that unhappy woman of the north would have you lose, will not be lost from you as you fear. Life will flourish in you, do not fear to let it. Loss cannot be prevented, not even by the Mhasc Caoin, but the loss you have known will not be revisited upon you.”
Aislinn removed her hands from the sword, her face drawn and somber.
Caoinlin caught her breath, which she hadn’t noticed was escaping her and steadied herself against her father’s slab.
“It’s the best I can do,” the witch bowed, “your majesty.”
Caoinlin’s head was only beginning to clear when Aislinn descended the steps.
“Wait,” Caoinlin called, standing.
But Aislinn was gone and there was nothing but the same muted silence that had traveled with her the last week. The flowers did not even rustle when the breeze played over their leaves.
Caoinlin turned to her father.
She bowed her head to touch his. There were so many things she had to say to him: to ask forgiveness for her harsh words when they last spoke; to tell him that she understood that the decisions he made were never easy or considered lightly; that she had loved him and that he had been the best of fathers. But the chill of his flesh told her that such words were no longer necessary and that there really was only one thing left for her to say to him.
She pressed her lips to his forehead and then drew the shroud over his face again.
When she turned, she found that she was no longer alone.
Fiachrin was at the other end of the hall, clad in black and pale as ever, but his eyes were vivid; the life in them pierced through the stifling silence wrapped heavy around Caoinlin. And for the first time in a week, she heard a bird twittering as it flew by.
Fiachrin came forward, but then stopped in the middle of the hall.
“If I had known,” he said, his voice, though soft, echoed in the vast empty hall, “what he was going to do; I would have stopped him.”
Caoinlin held Fiachrin’s sword to her chest and came down the steps.
Fiachrin’s brow fell. “We won the day, but we pursue them east, they haven’t ceded.”
She stood within reach of him, she could feel the heat rolling off him.
“Is that all you have to say?” he asked. “Is war your nearest thought, even now?”
She held out his sword and he took it, his face crumpled. She touched his cheek and his caught her hand, pressing it to his face.
“I made a promise,” she said, “the empire will not fall. The only thing I can say for sure about myself is that I always keep my promises.”
“That is not the promise that I would ask you to make now,” he said. “Are you not tired of fighting, mo ghrà?”
“To my very bones,” she said. “But we will see it through, so our children will not have to suffer the weariness of war, as we have.”
He kissed the palm of her hand, smiling.
“Lead the way.”
Though it was often difficult and many more died, the empire held.
Caoinlin and Fiachrin ruled a country united, as best they could, but were not always loved or lauded, as few leaders are.
And they lived, happily enough, much of the time.
Except for a great period of grief when their daughter, who was born healthy and grew full to womanhood, disappeared one day while traveling to lend aid during an outbreak.
But that is once upon another time.