Maolan didn’t know what to expect. The closer he came to Gruglen, the more fantastical the stories, until he wasn’t convinced that this Mhasc Caoin was real. The people were desperate for hope, for a hero. It would not have surprised him if they had created one to soothe their unending suffering.
When he walked into the inn and saw a tall man seated in the corner, his face shielded behind a bronze mask that lent him an unearthly countenance, reflecting in his eyes, uncannily like a wolf’s in firelight, General Maolan experienced an uncharacteristic moment of intimidation.
The townspeople were boisterous in their drinking and laughter, but they gave the Mhasc Caoin wide and deferential berth, all except a gray-haired blind man with gnarled scars on his face and broad rolled-in shoulders that made him look older than he was.
Though few others took notice of him, the Mhasc Caoin’s eerie wolf eyes snapped over to the meet his and held the general’s stare with the detached confidence of another species, another predator.
Maolan’s had to remind himself of who he was. He bypassed the inn-keeper who scurried forward to greet him and went straight to the Mhasc Caoin’s table.
“May I?” He touched the empty chair across from him. All around, the crowd hushed.
Many heartbeats passed before the Mhasc Caoin inclined his head.
The general stiffened his spine and chided himself for allowing the stories to color his impressions of this stranger. Sitting down, he inspected the wolf as openly as the wolf inspected him.
His hair was longer than was common here, a ruddier undertone, browner than black. Slim braids ran back from his temples—a southerner. Maolan counted twelve braids. Meaning the wolf claimed only twelve lives at his hands, far fewer than the grandiose tales rippling across the countryside would have one believe. The warrior was also younger than the General had first supposed, lean and lanky. Maolan outweighed him by sixty, the difference all in muscle. No trace of hair on the wolf’s neck or around his mouth either. The wolf was no wolf at all, hardly a man even. This revelation shooed the phantom tales from his mind and returned him to his proper senses.
“I am told Lady Liobhan and her Ulic died at your hands,” he said.
The wolf’s blind companion drank from his stein, licking the brandy wine from his lips.
“Yes,” the Mhasc Caoin answered. There was something odd about the youth’s voice, as though he were speaking from the bottom of well.
The general shifted in his seat, settling in. He crossed his arms over his chest. A stein of his own was set before him.
“Tell me what happened.”
“She tried to escape,” the warrior replied. “I stopped her.”
The boy betrayed no emotion, not in his voice or in his eyes.
The general took a deep drink. The wine was unwatered and tasted of sour cherries—the kind common to brambles common in this part of the land. Its familiar taste reminded Maolon of his purpose. “What brought you here?”
“I was en route to offer my service to your king.”
“And do you still seek to offer this service?”
Maolan took off his gloves. The chair creaked under his weight. He took another longer drink.
When he was done, he asked, “Do you not drink, Mhasc Caoin?”
Maolan’s brow arched. The boy was familiar enough with the uniforms of the kingdom to recognize rank, at least.
“Do they call you anything besides, Mhasc Caoin?”
Maolan noted how the townspeople appeared to be leaning collectively toward him and Conlan.
“In what kingdom will they know you as Conlan?”
Conlan’s gray eyes were smooth as glass.
“You wish to know where I’m from, General?”
“Please don’t be offended that I am unable to answer.”
Maolan leaned forward, careful not to appear too aggressive, but feeling as though he wanted to slap this child across the face.
“And why should a knight of your alleged prowess wish to conceal the land of his origin or his face for that matter?”
Conlan did not move, did not blink, and seemed to see right through Maolan’s veneer of courtesy. Inch by inch, Maolan sat back. When nothing but Maolan’s hands remained over the table, Conlan answered.
“This is the land of my origin, General,” he said. “The Ulic do not differentiate between us, they slaughter us all the same. It is time we recognize that we are more alike in birth and death than that which divides us in life.”
A philosophical child, no less. Aristocratic in upbringing. Some fool son of a lord or a duke.
“Could not the same be said for the Ulic?” Maolan replied.
“We were not the ones who broached the Ulic’s shores,” the wolf answered readily. “Our enemies define our borders. I would rather that I did not have to draw against them, General. I would prefer no blood be shed. But as long as the Ulic invade this land and butcher the people born from it, then they are the ones who draw the lines. It is clearly between themselves and us. I will stand at that line as long as they press upon it.”
Perhaps it was the mask. Or the boy’s utter lack of emotion. Or worse, how he managed to disguise his conviction under a guise of detached logic. But the general did know what to make of this so-called masked wolf. He had seen countless soldiers, some raised on rich meats and fatty milk, others on grubs and water. He known men bold and stubborn as wild goats and moony and wilting as delicate violets. Some who spoke like poets, others hardly at all. All he learned from all those men is that none of it meant anything in the nightmare of battle. Any man could kill. But could he do it again, and again? Could he sleep at night and wake ready in the morning. Could he remember to gentle his hand to child when it was all done? Whatever the secret to alchemy to creating men such as those able to withstand the carnage, the brutality, the ceaseless barrage of war, the General had not, in his fifty-two years, uncovered it. All he knew was that the king needed every body available to throw at the bloodless evil that was Arthor. This boy, whatever childish game he played at with his mask-wearing, could not be turned away. No matter how unsettling and odd.
With a heavy sigh, Maolan leveled his gaze at the boy. “I believe Tireachan would be interested to hear what you have to say.”
“I would happy to speak with His Majesty,” Conlan said, “But conversation is not why I have come.”
Maolan lifted his stein, snorting into his wine.
One more body to slaughter.