One early icy morning on the brink of winter, a few short weeks after the execution, the general woke shivering and unable to sleep. He stoked the dying fire, the dancing shadows on the thick tapestries pressing around him. Restless, he made his way to the parapets, hoping the frigid air would shake him from the fevered unease of his sleep.
He stepped out onto the wall and was greeted by swords clanging off the black walls and through the clear air. One of the guards looked up from where he was chipping the night’s ice off the allure by torchlight. He met the general’s searching gaze and his eyes flicked over the side toward the courtyard below his station.
Mindful of the invisible sheet of ice beneath him, the general worked carefully toward the embrasure to peer down upon the disused courtyard off the great banquet hall. In happier times, it had served to offer the nobility fresh air after midwinter feast.
Now, there were four grunting, stone-faced knights, in full battle armor, sparring. By the four lone torches posted at the corners, much of the action was lost to the general. but he had to only catch a glimpse of one of the knights to know that the other three where there. Where Conlan was, the other three were sure to be as well.
Maolan was not particularly fond of the knights that had attached themselves to the Mhasc Caoin, though they had served and survived longer than some who’d come before them. Killeen was the youngest and the only one from Gaidtach Tuath. Like most people from Blackstone, his was dark-haired and his light eyed. Thickly-muscled and shorter, Killeen didn’t lack for spirit. The knight, many years older than Conlan, though he was not yet twenty-five, had a much younger temperament and could often be brought to fight with little provocation. His companions, Lasair and Cuana, both fair-haired second sons of lords from formerly independent eastern states, spent as much of their time drinking and carousing as they did fighting. This type of behavior was something Maolan was used to from the nobility. What he wasn’t used to was this behavior changing.
And yet, here they were, before dawn, training in the bitter cold.
Their breath puffed in opaque white clouds. They cried out as men do when they are exerting great efforts and from what Maolan could see, they were exerting great effort.
“They come every morning, sir,” the guard said in a whisper as if fearful of the knights below overhearing. “Three hours before dawn and until the sun rises.”
“Every morning?” Maolan said.
“Yes, sir,” the guard answered. “I overheard the Mhasc Caoin say that if they will be defeated, it will not be by ice or snow or cold—” The guard’s gaze flicked down to the courtyard and he moved back from the wall. “Do you know where he comes form, sir? Why he wears the mask?”
“The mask is theatrics,” Maolan said. “A means of heightening his fame. He is a southerner.”
A pregnant silence fell between them. The guard cleared his throat.
“Oh, what is it?” Maolan demanded.
“It’s only that, well . . . some of the older guards think, and I remember, too, though I was but a lad, not much older than—” the guard stammered.
“The point, private?”
The guard spun his ice breaker in his hands nervously, his gaze sidecast. “It’s only that . . . the Mhasc Caoin, he is much like . . .well, he sounds and acts very much like . . . well, the prince, sir.”
Maolan felt as though the private had driven the hoe into his boot. “The prince? Fiachrin?” Maolan could hardly say the name he was so incredulous at what the guard was suggesting. He shook his head. “You think that the Mhasc Caoin is Fiachrin?”
“No, sir,” the guard said hurriedly, “I don’t. But there are some who are thinking that . . . might be he is,”—he rubbed at his arm anxiously—“a ghost of sorts.”
Maolan snorted. “A ghost?” Maolan shook his head. “Believe me, Conlan is no ghost. He’ll bled the same as any of us. And he is not Fiachrin. I have never heard such a fool—”
A memory cut so sharply into his mind that it sliced off his words midsentence. He recalled that day over a year ago, when he’d first brought Conlan before Tireachan.
Conlan had said something that Fiachrin had often told his men when good weapons were too few, “Strength is in the mettle of the man, not the metal of his sword.”
It had startled him and Tireachan both. Not because the words were just as Fiachrin would have formed them, but that the delivery was hauntingly similar. Had Conlan’s voice been deeper, more impassioned, it could have been Fiachrin. Conlan even paused after the first word, strength, just as Fiachrin had and emphasized the word metal in the same manner, as though the word itself had edge.
But as quickly as the though Maolan chased it off. The myth of the wolf was out-of-control, if the people were beginning to entertain such absurd notions.
“Continue with your duties,” Maolan said. “And I would advise you not to draw any further comparisons between Conlan and Fiachrin. Out of respect for your King’s grief, if nothing else.”
“Yes, sir.” The guard raised the hoe and quickly returned to splitting and clearing the ice.