Tireachan was right about one thing: the Ulic feared Conlan.
If he had not seen it himself, he might not have believed it. But when the three prisoners were brought to the gallows, assailed by a frothing mob of peasants and nobles alike, shouting and cursing, they registered no emotion. As they were roughly pushed onto the trap doors, nooses dangling before them, there were no tears in their eyes. No flicker of unease at the fate awaiting them when the those deathly ropes were knotted about their necks.
Their utterly blank expressions only served to incite the crowd further. Hundreds of people began to sway and churn like a sea in a storm.
Maolan, stationed up on the inner wall’s parapets beside the king, pursed his lips as a woman below, overtaken by her own grief-stricken wails fainted away, sinking like a ship beneath the crowd.
He leaned toward the king, who freshly bathed and allowed himself to be royally appointed with by a gold circlet and ermine-edged mantle, looked more himself again than he had in the last eight years.
“Sire, perhaps we should send down more guards to quell—”
Before he could finish, a hushed silence fell over the teeming mob. Maolan blinked, startled by the sudden cessation of noise.
Slowly, as though burdened by age or some unseen weight, the wolf mounted the platform behind the prisoners.
In the clouded light of morning, the steel plates of his mask shivered in cold flashes.
Uncertainty creased the faces of the Ulic, who could not yet see the wolf behind them.
Maolan tensed, clenching his jaw. He folded his arms, steeling himself against the grandiloquent oratory the wolf was surely bout to subject him to.
For a show was clearly what the wolf intended as he stalked around the end post and into the Ulic’s view. He kept his eyes straight ahead, slowing his pace to smug prowl. In this manner, he passed a foot before each of the Ulic without so much as glancing at them. As he did, the stoic countenances were stripped from the Ulic. The first left bowing his head, eyes shut. The second watching the wolf with evident terror. The last turning his gaze up to the sky, his lips moving in apparent prayer.
At the opposite post, where the lever waited. The wolf turned and lifted his face to the King. He placed his hand on the mechanism.
The people, too, shifted their faces up to the king. There in black, a crown of gold settled at his brow, like the very mountains of Blackstone.
The king stepped forward, resting his gloved hands upon the crenellations.
Maolan’s arms, despite himself, fell away from his chest to his side. The iron he had positioned within against this pageantry proved brittle and chinked. In the war-weary and sorrow-etched faces of the people below, raised up to their king, he saw for the first time in recent memory, the light of hope. And in turn, that hope shone upon the king and brought a swell in his chest and straightness to his spine that Maolan had thought as lost with the king’s son.
The king raised his hand and dropped his fingers.
The wolf cranked the lever. It sprang loose in a wooden thump. The doors beneath the Ulic opened greedily. Ropes snapped straight and jounced only briefly.
When the last twitch of the Ulic’s limbs was registered, the preternatural silence was broken by a small choked gasp of some long-mourning soul, the sound of a lifetime of losses unleashing tears unanswered by the goddess of justice, the god of vengeance. And so it spread out amongst the others, a collective sobbing for those that had been taken by the Ulic—grandparents, parents, children, lovers, friends. But the tears were no longer fueled by wrath and venom. They were soft and steady as spring rain, a relieved outpouring upon thawing ground.
And try as he might, Maolan could not help form grudging respect for the wolf-pup stepped down from the platform and vanished back through the ranks of soldiers, many also with shining cheeks and bowed heads, without a word.