Maolan quickly determined that he didn’t like Conlan.
He didn’t like the way his officers gazed, semi-petrified, at the young knight. He didn’t like the wolf’s long silences, but he hated the brief bursts of eloquence even more. He hated the deference the townspeople showed Conlan as they departed for Teamair, Tireachan’s city. They lined the streets and watched Conlan leave with tears in their eyes, even the men. But it was their silence which unnerved Maolan the most. In all his life, he had never seen such a farewell. It was not that they were aggrieved, that Maolan might’ve expected. Rather they were somber. As they rode past the tear-streaked faces of the people lining the street to see them off, he realized that their gravity was weighted by expectation. An expectation focused solely upon this mysterious foreigner. And what had the wolf done? From what Maolan understood, virtually nothing.
The witch hadn’t helped matters. Her servants, that is. During their questioning, the servants reported that Lady Liobhan had dreamt of her death. But of course, it was more dramatic than a simple premonition.
For weeks, they claimed, she’d dreamt of a massive gray wolf. She dreamt she was a sparrow waiting out a storm nestled in a yew tree. The storm darkened the day to night and snapped supple green branches from the trees as though they were brittle as fire tinder. The rain churned up the earth and exposed the roots. The water was so great that it seemed it would flood the land and merge with the sea. But as the dirt slurred to mud and lay bare the stones and roots once buried deep, the roots began to curl around the rock and gather together until it was a giant cocoon. When the gnarled shell cracked, the storm faltered. From the egg emerged a wolf, jaws already bloody.
The lady, in her dream, believed the blood to be her own and knew that when the wolf came, she would die. But she saw also, that as the wolf licked her blood from its muzzle, it grew bigger and stronger. The storm redoubled its rage and the wolf lapped all the water from the ground and then turned up its mouth and opened it so wide that not a drop of rain was able to escape its jaws. The wolf grew so large that each of its paws touched the furthest corners of the land.
The servants were executed for their treacherous loyalty to their lady above their country. But their story somehow spread. And he didn’t have to ask his lieutenants how that might’ve occurred.
Spring was coming. And Arthor would return.
Maolan’s only comfort was that an encounter with Arthor’s warriors would shrink this wolf to the pup he was. Tireachan would accept the wolf’s allegiance. Tireachan turned away no man from battle, not even his own son. If Fiachrin had yet been alive, the people would not turn their desperate hope to this southerner who was more myth than man.
Teamair was seventeen days' journey from Gruglen, at a company’s pace. Maolan had brought some one hundred men to deal with this situation and two more companies waited further down the Ola to assist if necessary. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to deal with non-compliant aristocrats, though it was the first time that he’d heard of one of them aiding an Ulic. He supposed it was only a matter of time before some woman was seduced by one an Ulic warrior. He had simply not thought it would be one of their provincial governesses. He hoped that this would inspire a deeper loathing of the Ulic and spark renewed vigilance in the coming season.
The Mhasc Caoin rode behind the company, always with his blind servant, whom he insisted on referring to as his man-at-arms, though Maolan thought it ridiculous to bestow the honorific upon the old beggar. The fact that the knight also persisted in riding behind on his showy palfrey, when the knights were expected to ride ahead of the King’s officers, bothered Maolan as well. He didn’t like having the boy lurking at his back, even if there were a hundred men between them. Worse, it stunk of contrived humility.
Maolan was accustomed to dealing with the haughty personalities of the high-born. He wouldn’t have been able to fight his way from enlisted son of a shepherd to the King’s general if he’d let the arrogance of the aristocrats impede him. As general, he commanded the companies of knights, but more than once he’d watched a young duke rush headlong into death simply to satisfy his own sense of superiority. Maolan mourned their loss as he would mourn the loss of any stupid man.
Lords, dukes, even princes liked to declare themselves men of the people, but they always kept apart from the soldiers and officers. They rode their pure-bred horses and wore their shining armor and carried jewel-encrusted swords that made them the most coveted targets for the Ulic. Only Fiachrin had been different. And that was because his father was different. Tireachan was a practical man. The king would listen to any who seemed to have a head of sense. His openness to all was the primary reason he’d been as successful against Arthor as he had. In recent years, since Fiachrin’s death, Tireachan had become more obsessed, singularly focused on the death of Arthor. There were some who worried that his desire for revenge would interfere with the King’s concern for protecting the smaller villages and coastal areas. They feared that Tireachan would pull his outposted companies from their sentinel duties and throw them all into a manhunt, leaving the people vulnerable.
It didn’t surprise Maolan that most of these opinions seemed to originate in neighboring kingdoms that had not come under heavy Ulic attack. And from kings fearful of what Tireachan might do with his massive army if and when he ultimately turned back the Ulic threat.
Four of the closest kingdoms had already ceded control and pledged fealty to Blackstone, effectively expanding the kingdom over the entire northern and a good portion of the western coast. Many kings of old had attempted to unite the country through conquest, but Tireachan had not conquered these kingdoms, they had come to him for help and given over governance of their lands and their people freely. Their kings remained as heads of state, but they bowed to Tireachan. Maolan knew that nothing pained a king more than to have to bow to another.
The farther north they traveled, the farther behind they left spring. Although winters in Blackstone were brutally cold and icy, they didn’t suffer the burying snow of some of the western inland areas thanks to the ocean currents which were quick to influx warm southern air. More often, the city of Teamair was piled with fog and rain.
So it was on the day they at last arrived.
The city sat upon a hill overlooking the Ban River to the west and a fertile plain to the south and east. To the north, the land climbed steeply for half a day, ending abruptly in grey cliffs carved back by the ocean. The landscape was excellent for sheep and crops, and terrible for the Ulic, who could be sighted from the cliffs on any clear day and whose ships were vulnerable to the rocky shoals every other day. The river was too heavily guarded to be threatened. Which was why they bypassed it for the Ola which was more accessible for its numerous drainage points and canals.
There was no reception in the city.
The people there, even if they had heard of the young wolf’s exploits, had seen too many starry-eyed men come and go to be impressed by one more showy southerner, though a few did stop to stare at the fool’s metal mask.
The walls of the city constructed of the glittering black granite of the distant mountains. At night, they became virtually invisible, unless the moon was out. Few sights were more spectacular than the Teamir’s walls in the moonlight from across the plain. The glassy deposits in the hard stone winked and flashed like stars brought to ground.
Most of the city’s buildings were of the softer pale white limestone found closer afield, but Tireachan’s fortress, the Caiseal, that rose above all in a mighty spire, was of the same wonderous black mountain rock. The castle was situated at the far northern edge of the city, from its shortest tower one could see the horizon of the sea past the cliffs. Maolan loved the city and was humbled always when he was granted entrance through the Caiseal’s triple gates.
He was glad to see the wolf crane his slender neck back and gaze upward in awe at the Caiseal’s four towers. He only wished that the day were clear so that the tops were fully visible.
A messenger had been sent ahead, thus Tireachan waited to receive them in his war room. It was there the king spent most of his days. He no longer held court. The numerous great halls were dusty and silent from disuse. The courtyards maintained by a lone elderly gardener, who refused to allow his years of tending to be undone because Tireachan could not spare a man to apprentice in care of the plants. All of the servants were women or very old men. Any boy able-bodied enough was in training as a soldier or a blacksmith. There were never enough men or swords.
The war room, a low-ceiling windowless cavern, was carved out beneath the stairs to the highest tower.
At its center, a large round table that might’ve been wood or stone, it was hard to say as it was always cluttered with messages from the furthest reaches of the kingdom, with reports from governors and commanders, with requests for more supplies, more men, always more.
The walls were thick with heavy tapestries depicting battles of old that no one talked anymore. Alongside these hung portraits of long-dead royals. And above the fireplace, one of a prince not so long dead. Well-worn chairs, whose deep-brown leathers were torn and disgorging their wool stuffing, littered the space. Whenever Tireachan left the room, servant women surged in to kick up the dust and sweep it out and patch the holes as quickly as they could before he returned.
Maolan heaved open the heavy wooden door and stepped aside to allow Conlan to enter first.
The wolf had the unnerving habit of walking behind the general and so he was relieved to finally position the boy in front of him.
The room was staid and musky. A dim, low fire did little to cut the chill or light the room. The chandelier above the table was only half-lit. It appeared Tireachan had not even allowed his servants in long enough to install new candles behind the dusty glass orbs.
Tireachan did not look up when the wolf and the general entered.
Seated in a low wooden chair, the king hunched over a report. A tarnished old oil lamp had been plunked among heaps of parchment, illuminating little more than what was in front of the king. One elbow leaned upon the table, the king’s fist pressed against his temple. In his other hand, yet another message from which his sharp green eyes did not waver.
Conlan stopped a few paces from the table and looked upon Tireachan in an unforgiving and bold manner that spoke even more to the boy’s arrogance.
Maolan rounded to the table to the King’s side and waited to be acknowledged. He looked down on Tireachan’s limp black hair, streaked white at his temples. Tireachan’s black wool coat was smudged by dirt and dust. The short chair disguised his height and though he had lost considerable weight over the last few years, once he was on his feet, he was still an imposing man. Maolan wished keenly that the king would rise to his full height before the wolf boy.
The king sighed deeply and lowered the report. His heavy gaze lingered on the blank air where the letter had been, and then lifted slowly to Conlan.
“Who are you?” Tireachan’s voice was as heavy as his gaze.
“I am at your service, Your Highness,” Conlan replied, bowing deeply.
Tireachan tracked the boy’s movements and when the wolf had straightened locked eyes with him, who stared back in his imperturbable fashion and with (to Maolan’s indignation) something like pity. Either the king did not notice or did not care.
“You are the Mhasc Caoin.” Disinterestedly, the king began to rifle through the papers before him. “I received a message about you from my Captain at Orisand.”
“Yes, Your Highness. I met Captain Duff.”
“He reported the most incredible story,” Tireachan said, though he didn’t sound impressed. “That you swam an icy river and cracked holes in two Ulic boats to keep them from escaping. Is that true?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Quite clearly absurd,” Tireachan stated.
The Mhasc Caoin had the audacity to smirk, but in a second the expression passed from his mouth as though it had never been there.
“And you lost four Ulic prisoners,” the king said. “Is that true?”
The knight’s gaze steeled. Maolan waited for the boy to squirm, but the wolf simply stood there, implacable.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Tireachan stopped picking through his papers. “You accept responsibility for the loss of those prisoners?”
Tireachan leaned back in his chair and tented his fingers. His beard was overgrown and covered his top lip. It remained as black as the mountain stone. “Why would you say that?”
Hands locked behind his back, the Mhasc Caoin made no reply.
“Captain Duff reported that you blamed his sergeant for the prisoners’ escape. You claimed the sergeant informed the townspeople were to meet the caravan and that had they not interfered, the transport would’ve proceeded unhindered and the prisoners would’ve never been given the opportunity for escape.”
Conlan did not speak, only continued to hold the King’s gaze. Maolan grit his teeth.
“Was Captain Duff’s report false?” Tireachan asked.
“Well, speak boy!” Tireachan thumped the table. “I haven’t the time to dredge every answer from you. Why would you claim responsibility for the escape when it was not yours to claim?”
“It was my responsibility, Your Grace,” Conlan said. “I failed.”
“I failed to anticipate the townspeople’s actions, though I had a suspicion. I was unable to stop them from intercepting the transport, though it was within my power to do so. I failed to defend myself adequately against the Ulic, though I had the advantage.”
“And so you would act differently if the situation were replayed?”
Tireachan raked his fingers through his beard. “Let me see your sword, boy.”
Conlan withdrew his sword.
“Here,” Tireachan tapped the table. “Put it here.”
Conlan stepped forward and placed the sword on the table, its point facing Tireachan. The King leaned over the blade which caught the thin light dully.
“You used this thing against the Ulic and survived?”
“Strength is in the mettle of the man, not the metal of his sword.”
Maolan’s heart stopped. Tireachan froze.
Tireachan’s hands were pressed flat against the table. “What did you say?”
Conlan’s head dipped. “Forgive me, Your Highness.”
“Forgive you for what?”
A strange cloud passed over the wolf’s eyes. Maolan was lost.
“I apologize if I affronted you,” the wolf said.
“You have not affronted me,” Tireachan retorted. “Where did you learn that? The spirit is stronger than the steel, who told you that?”
The pity returned to Conlan’s eyes, but Maolan was no longer certain of its origins.
“My master,” Conlan said and in that response was evident grief.
Tireachan’s fingernails scraped the table as his hands retreated. “Your master was a wise man. Not such an original notion, I suppose. Your master is dead?”
“I don’t know,” Conlan replied, “He was lost to me. It may be that he is dead.”
The King and the wolf looked at each other and between them Maolan saw something pass that he had not seen from his king in the last seven years, the extension and receipt of sympathy.
And, grudgingly, Maolan was forced to reconsider his opinion of the boy. Perhaps he did have some sense of sorrow, some awareness of mortality. Perhaps he was not so arrogant and foolish as he first appeared.
Tireachan shoved back his chair and rose to his full height. Maolan took a step back. Tireachan came around the table. His coat was so filthy that the silver embroidery around the hem that flapped against his claves was barely visible. His once commanding stride had become a halting, tentative gait. Still, most men would cower in Tireachan’s shadow. He stood four inches taller than the wolf, who was at least an inch taller than Maolan. But Conlan looked up the King as though he was a familiar figure and this was not their first meeting. Tireachan placed a thin, broad hand on Conlan’s shoulder.
“I trust you will make your master proud.”
At this, Conlan’s head dipped.
And the wolf came to serve the King.