Maolan saw the Mhasc Caoin rarely in the year that followed, though he heard enough of him to form a grudging respect for the knight’s abilities.
Tireachan dispatched Conlan to serve with a company posted east of Teamair, where the cliffs gave way to the low lands and where more men died every year than were born.
It was a test.
If a man survived from spring to fall there, then he was indeed a warrior.
Maolan, for his part, spent the summer coordinating those companies, in which the young knight was a part.
He met the Ulic three times before the summer equinox and followed their attacks east along the coast.
By mid-summer he was as so far south he was almost in what had once been the kingdom of Greensea. Forty miles north of Orisand, he received news of Arthor’s attack on Sealdhtur, a town little more than a hundred miles from Teamair. He was also informed of the Mhasc Caoin’s victory over the Ulic. It was reported that when the company’s captain and sergeant were both felled, along with five of the ten knights stationed at the trading post, the Mhasc Caoin called for the remaining men to withdraw. As the Ulic pursued the fleeing soldiers, they were led into a narrow gap where the Mhasc Caoin and three other knights slaughtered forty Ulic, who had been baited down a blind path in near single-file. Those who turned to flee were surrounded on the other end by the remainder of the company which had doubled back over a ridge. Arthor was forced to retreat. The Mhasc Caoin was credited with masterminding the victory.
As winter once again approached, he journeyed north to meet with his commanding officers, Maolan was bombarded by yet another story of Conlan’s latest victory. Four knights had been summoned farther east, and had, by chance, come across an Ulic raid of a fishing village. These four knights slaughtered two dozen Ulic. Heralded as their leader, the Mhasc Caoin.
After meeting with his commanders, he returned to Teamair to consult with the king.
They assembled at the table in the war room.
Tireachan seemed to have lost more weight. His eyes had a sunken appearance, not helped by the dark rings beneath. Maolan was used to the smell of unwashed men, but he was unsettled by the King’s disinterest in his own hygiene. Despite his lack of attention to his body, Tireachan’s mind continued to run quick as an engorged river.
“Five attacks at the channel.” Tireachan thumped his finger against the table, scattering papers. “In fifteen years, mine enemy has attacked the channel that many times. Now in one year, he has doubled his efforts.”
“The western kingdoms have no idea of how vulnerable they are,” Maolan said grimly.
“No,” Tireachan agreed. “We’ve protected them from it.”
“And for what?” Maolan said. “Redsun, Birchwater, they accuse you of being a tyrant. They send no aid, have done nothing prepare. Arthor will lay waste to them.”
Tireachan dug his fingertips into his beard and into the skin beneath it. “Indeed.”
“Will you send an envoy? Warn them? If they hope to protect their people, their crowns, then they would do well to send men to the channel,” Maolan said. “Our men are spread thin enough as it is. The tribes are too unreliable. Our commanders have had to renegotiate with three new chiefs this year because they are constantly in upheaval.”
Tireachan leaned forward, stirred his tea, and then set the spoon aside and sat back without drinking.
“I have already sent an envoy to Redsun and Birchwater,” he sighed. “I have even relayed word to King Breannain of Orangehill and King Ross of Isleblue. If we fail at the channel, we will have to warn the southern kings as well. Not that we will be able to reach them by land faster than the Ulic will by sea.”
The grim results of the scenarios washed through him like icy waves. “If Arthor breaks through the channel,” Maolan said, “then we may not be able to send word, not when we’re engaged in a land war. It would not take much for Arthor to gain a foothold along the western coast. There must be thousands of small islands there. Redsun would have no hope with the Ulic living a few miles off its mainland border. And if Redsun comes under Ulic control,”—the reality sunk in his stomach like an axe to the bottom of a river—“then our western border will be open for invasion.”
The king studied the general. “And so, my general, what is your advice? Shall I build a wall from the mountains to the sea?” He snorted at the absurdity. Even if such a thing were possible, it would take years and all the men they had.
Despairing was not in Maolan’s makeup. They would fight to the end. “We will move two companies up to the channel to prepare for spring.”
“From where?” the king asked. “Have we begun arming women now?”
Maolan held his sovereign’s gaze. “Perhaps we should consider it.”
The two men fell silent for a time.
Maolan hadn’t been serious about arming women, but the number of casualties they’d suffered this season was staggering—a battalion’s worth. Some would recover over the winter, but the cold was more likely to kill the weak and infirm than to offer an opportunity for recuperation.
A knock on the door jarred them both from their bleak contemplation.
Tireachan straightened in his seat. “Come.”
In walked the MHasc Caoin. A new mask covered his face, one of thin steel sheets. His hair was cropped close to his head, almost shaven. The braids were gone. He carried his helmet under his arm. His gray eyes were bright from the brisk ride. He bowed. He was not heavier but seemed bigger somehow. Perhaps it was only the layers of wool and leather he wore against the cold.
“Conlan, come, sit,” Tireachan spoke the wolf’s name with the fondness of master for his favorite dog. The knight set his helmet on the table and sat. “Are they en route?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Conlan said. In his tone, too, deep deference. “Lasair and Cuana escort the transport. Killeen and I rode ahead at Your Majesty’s request.”
Maolan set his teeth. He knew the names of the other three knights who had come to compromise Conlan’s mythical little group, but he wasn’t clear what transport was being discussed and who exactly was en route.
Tireachan nodded and looked on Conlan appraisingly. “It will lift the people’s spirits to see the Ulic executed publicly.”
Conlan inclined his head, though showed no reaction to the King’s warmth of demeanor toward him.
“How many Ulic are to be executed?” Maolan asked, trying not to sound as enraged as he felt.
Tireachan’s arched brow rose to a sharp peak. “All of them, General.”
Conlan met Maolan’s throbbing eyes. He was maddeningly perceptive.
“It may be that while the General was en route himself, he did not receive the message concerning the capture,” Conlan said.
Before Maolan could confirm or deny this, Conlan leaned his forearms on the table, clasped his hands and said,
“A week ago, we were following your orders to patrol the coast, moving back toward Teamair. We encountered a raiding party at Coiglen. The company there suffered grave losses, reduced to thirty men, most were injured, though the enemy’s raiding party was no more than a dozen. We surprised the Ulic at the moment of their apparent victory and those we did not kill surrendered.”
“Surrendered?” Maolan said, incredulous. Ulic were either overcome or killed. In all his years, he had never met one who surrendered.
Ignorant or slying arrogance, Conlan merely nodded.
“We took three men prisoner. They will arrive shortly.”
Tireachan settled back into his chair thoughtfully. Maolan could only take slow, deep breaths to keep from unleashing the fury he felt for not having this information before the wolf had arrived.
“Conlan, I want you and your men to go east to the channel,” Tireachan said. “You will take command there.”
Maolan leaped up from his chair. Neither Tireachan nor Conlan winced, but looked up at him as though this reaction was expected.
“Your Highness, you would put this boy in charge of my soldiers at the most crucial outpost in the entirety of the kingdom?”
Tireachan’s waxen skin pulled even tighter over his skull. “Sit down, general.”
Maolan quaked, his head pounding, but after a moment, he managed to lower himself into the chair once more.
“I believe they are my soldiers,” the king said, “are they not?”
Maolan bowed his head, biting his lip.
“I intend for you to accompany Conlan to the channel, with a company of men this spring to ensure that all are made fully aware that this boy is indeed in command. Lt. Colonel Cabra has sent me a list of refortifications necessary there. General, you will make certain that the supplies arrive by the first day of spring and we will trust Conlan to see that they are completed by the first of summer.”
Through clenched teeth, Maolan said, “Sire, if I may speak to you in private.”
“Speak now if you have something to say on the matter,” Tireachan said. “If you would be this boy’s detractor then he has the right to know what it is you hold against him.”
Maolan’s throat tightened. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to speak. “I would only say that I recommended two companies of men be moved to the channel this spring. And four knights, even if one of them is the Mhasc Caoin, does not constitute a company. Furthermore, Lt. Colonel Cabra has done excellent work this past year, his men know and respect him. He has a great deal of experience, both in dealing with the tribes and in managing that most important outpost.”
“Did you not receive Cabra’s request for a post change?” Tireachan asked.
“Yes, I did, but—”
“It has been a grave hardship on his wife and children to have him posted so far from home for so long and without respite,” Tireachan said. “In light of his superlative performance over the last year, strike that, over the last twelve years he has served, I was prepared to transfer him to Acair. I believe his family is but a short distance from there. That is, unless you would care for me to reconsider the matter.”
“No, sire, Lt. Colonel Cabra would serve fine in Acair, but I call into question the wisdom of putting this young man in charge at the channel. We both know what could come of a mistake made there.”
Tireachan ran his finger along his hollowed cheek. “Indeed, I do. But we do not have two companies of men to move there. We both know that. The strategic importance of the channel is undeniable, I cannot, as the sovereign of this land remove the soldiers from an outpost where the people depend on them for protection. The Ulic have pillaged this land, they’ve taken our wealth, our grain, everything of any material value, but these are not of my primary concern, general. Nor is protecting the western and southern kingdoms, if they will not move to protect themselves when they have been repeatedly warned. The people who pledge their fealty, their lives, their children’s lives to me, those who call me King and expect me to act as one, they are the resource I must defend foremost.”
“With all respect, your majesty, protecting the channel is a matter of defending our people. The coast of Redsun is but three weeks from our western border and the River Seimh would give them virtually a direct route into Gaid Tuath!”
A dark shadow moved over the king’s face. “Do you think me ignorant of the situation?”
“No, of course not, but—why? Why him?” He thrust his hand across the table at the wolf. “He’s practically a child.”
“A child that has already spread a fearful reputation among the Ulic. So much so that they surrendered to him. Since you did not receive the message concerning the capture, you might want to hear what the Ulic had to say once they were captured.”
Maolan wanted to go dig his grave is what he wanted to do. Instead, he sat there feeling sharp pains shooting up his spine and into the back of his head. All the while, the wolf was still as death, expressing even less emotion than the Great Silent One.
Tireachan waited for a moment and then said, “They reported that Arthor’s own son, whose boats were destroyed at Orisand by this child and who was later captured, by force, though he managed to escape, so frightened of Conlan that he disobeyed his father, took a great many of the Ulic people, and fled the islands they have been inhabiting. It is said that he refuses to return here, because of that,”—Tireachan pointed his finger at Conaln,—“child.”
Maolan met Conlan’s steady gaze. The General wanted to burn through the fog in the wolf’s eyes, to tear away his mask, to expose the flesh that made him vulnerable, that made him human.
“Maolan,” Tireachan said softly but firmly, “I have trusted your judgment, for a decade you have commanded my army and I have not once had cause to doubt you. I would ask that you, in turn, afford me the confidence that I have afforded you. If the Ulic hear that the Mhasc Caoin is waiting for them at the channel, then it might deter them from attacking there with as much vigor as they did this past year. They fear this boy. And in this last year, he has served me as faithfully as you or any man. He is of nobility and is trained to lead. Yes, he is young. But he has successfully organized a company in the most disorganized of times, in the midst of battle and to our victory. And it is our victory, Maolan. It is the victory of every being in Gaid Tuath. Walls take time to build, but here we have a defense that can do more than stand in their way, it can fight back and inspire fear. He can inspire fear, he has. We are at war, we must utilize every effective defense, weapon, and man, regardless of his age.”
Choking on arguments he knew would be rebuked, Maonlan bowed his head, “As you wish, Your Highness.”