Later that week, Maolan stood in Tireachan’s war room.
Around the king’s table, the high commanding officers.
It was a hard journey in winter, but an impossible one in any other season. They simply could not be pulled away from their battalions during the raiding season.
They were quibbling. Who needed more men, who needed more supplies, who was likely to be the worst hit in the coming months. Spring always came too soon in Blackstone.
Exhausted, head throbbing, Maolan stepped away from the table to the fireplace.
He stared into the flames. A light sweat broke on his body. Eventually, he looked up.
Fiachrin stared back at him.
Fiachrin had broken his nose when he’d fallen from a horse as a child and it had healed with a bent to the left. This was evident in the painting, though his betrothed had wanted the artist to straighten it, no one else agreed with her. Popular opinion held that Fiachrin was better looking for his crooked nose. Conlan’s nose was not crooked. His mouth was not as wide. His complexion was olive-hued, not like cold cream. The wolf’s hair was dark with reddish undertones, it was not black like the mountains, like the stones of the Caiseal. Anyone with sense could look into those steel-gray eyes and know that Conlan was not Fiachrin. Nor was he a ghost.
The portrait had been painted in honor of the prince’s wedding, two months before the prince had disappeared, presumably murdered. He’d just turned twenty-five. Eight years had passed, but the people mourned still. So much so that they were planting in soul into bodies it did not belong.
Tireachan did not speak of Fiachrin. He did not weep or perform the ceremony for the dead. Nor would he remarry and attempt to have another heir. When the last of his ministers attempted to persuade him to do so, the man was sent to the mountains to oversee mining operations.
“What do you see General?” Tireachan asked under his breath.
Maolan started and looked quickly away from the portrait.
The king had sidled up beside him silent as snow. Behind them, the commanding officers were barking at one another. The king had washed for this meeting, as he had for the execution, and trimmed his beard and was wearing fresh clothes. If he had not been so thin, he might’ve resembled something of his old self. Maolan could not bring himself to respond.
“I wonder what he sees right now,” Tireachan said in the same quiet, distant voice, gazing up at the portrait of his son.
Maolan held his tongue.
“Yes, General, it’s true,” the king said, smiling tightly. “I do not believe my son is dead. If only his mother were alive to tell me if this feeling I have is true. She always had a sense of his well-being. But she is dead. That I know. So I have nothing but my own instincts, which I admit, were never as good as hers, but they are all I have.”
Tireachan raised a brow. “You think I’m mad, don’t you, General?”
“Of course not, Your Majesty,” Maolan said.
Not yet anyhow. But he feared that the king might fall into the same trap some of his guards had fallen into. Already he saw how the king treated Conlan, how his affection for the boy had grown. And it didn’t help that Conlan exhibited some uncanny similarities to the prince: such as his pre-dawn training regiment, something that the Prince had done since he was a child. But even smaller things than that had come to Maolan’s attention.
How the wolf cleaned his sword for one. From tip to tang and back and then over again, every day. He showed as much concern for his old battered sword as Fiachrin had for his simple but kingly war sword and in the same manner.
And his stances during sparring were much like Fiachrin’s as well, the same angles taken, the same positioning of the feet and shoulders. They might’ve been trained by the same master, even though Maolan knew it was impossible. Fiachrin’s swordmaster had been dead more than twenty years. Nevertheless, Maolan saw these things—he simply didn’t know what to make of them.
Tireachan put his hand on Maolan’s shoulder. “You are too much like me, General.”
Tireachan gave him a weary smile. “We have been at this war too long.”
The king’s eyes strayed up to Fiachrin’s portrait again.
“We’ve forgotten what it is to live without it.” The king’s chuckle was rusty and without mirth. “If it were ever to come to an end, neither of us would know what to do with ourselves. What would occupy our restless minds? Do you ever think of it? What our lives would be, after?”
His mouth opened and then closed without having produced any sound.
Tireachan’s hand slid away from Maolan’s shoulder. The king bowed his head, gaze falling to the fire.
“Sometimes, I wonder if it some fault of mine,” Tireachan mused. “If I were able to dream of a life after war, then perhaps, it would come to be.” A shine came to his eyes. “Alas, when my son disappeared, he took with him all the dreams I had for the future.”
He took a deep breath.
“What then do we take with us when we face our enemy? What do you hold in your heart when you raise weapon against them?”
“Love of country, Sire. Defense of my people,” Maolan answered readily.
Tireachan nodded, not looking at Maolan. “Those are great things to be sure. They are fires that will burn with men such as ourselves, war or no.”
The muscles in Maolan’s neck tensed.
“As of late though, old friend,” the king said, “I’m beginning to think, that a war is best won by those who have some desire that can only be fulfilled by its end.” The light in his eyes was keen and knowing as he looked up Maolan. “That perhaps, we ought to turn this battle over to those who have a vision of a life that can only be lived when this war is over.”