When the three knights first met Conlan, they thought him absurd.
What with his ridiculous mask and his prancing palfrey and his blind man-at-arms.
Not to mention that he was clearly younger than all of them. And though tall, was more slender than most of the men.
They’d been a part of a larger group of noblemen then. Conlan had been immediately singled out for ridicule and jest. Conlan didn’t help the situation by deferring from social interaction, mainly the drinking and the women. Being stationed at post was incredibly dull. Weeks could pass without word of a single raid within fifty miles. Noblemen with coin to spare found ways to fill their idle time. Conlan spent his free-time training, or tending his horse and his weapons, or meditating.
Only two of the knights who’d laughed at Conlan were alive to remember how strange the wolf had seemed at first, and Lasair and Cuana didn’t laugh at Conlan anymore.
In fact, Lasair was often found meditating with the wolf long before Cuana and Killeen woke for pre-dawn training. Cuana and Conlan kept a chess match going always, with Cuana’s little wooden set. Neither of them ever forgot where the pieces had been and what the other’s last moves were. Killeen had some skill with metal and had fashioned Conlan a mask, much like his bronze one, but made of silver, which the wolf wore as they traveled to the channel.
Killeen sometimes wished he was better at chess or able to wake up even earlier to meditate, he did not begrudge Lasair and Cuana the small stakes they claimed on Conlan. Killeen knew something about Conlan that neither of his compatriots knew. This tiny bit of knowledge made Killeen feel as though he was closer to Conlan than anyone, even Nevan, who seemed to be Conlan’s only confidant.
Killeen did feel a tad guilty about how he’d come by this information, but it wasn’t as if he’d meant to overhear it and he’d never divulge it. He’d never even admitted to Conlan what he’d heard, even though the words had come from Conlan’s own mouth.
Normally, Conlan slept in his own tent. On colder nights, Nevan might join him. In the summer, when they were afield, they all slept outdoors and Lasair’s snoring was loud enough to deafen the sound of one’s own heartbeat. But the nights had been too cold to sleep under the sky or alone and Nevan had stayed behind while the knights went on a scouting mission. Killeen could tell it discomfited Conlan to share the small tent, not that Conlan gave any sign of unease. Killeen did his best to be as unintrusive as possible. He’d spent the last year in awe of Conlan and would’ve slept outside if Conlan had asked him to.
The first night, they slept back to back and Conlan was, as always awake before him.
The second night, the wind battered at the tent and baffled the coarse fabric. Killeen woke up twice because of the thumping. The noise invaded his dreams, which were often of battle anyway and rarely left him feeling particularly rested. The third time he woke, he was on his side, facing Conlan, who was on his back.
The moon was near-full and the sky clear. The wretched wind rushing in ahead of the storm that would soak them through the next day. A faint light filtered through the waxed canvas and washed gray light over Conlan, whose face was covered by a cotton mask. Killeen saw Conlan’s lips moving before he was able to hear anything over the wind.
He didn’t think anything of it and was about to close his eyes to try for another few hours of sleep when Conlan said,
“I know she’s scared.”
Even with the mask, Killeen could see that Conlan’s eyes were pinched.
“It’s easier for her.” His words were becoming more distinct in agitation. “To pretend I’m someone else . . . nothing I can do.”
Killeen didn’t need a good imagination to believe Conlan’s dream were about someone real, some woman. Pain crimped Conlan’s words. Lasair and Cuana speculated often about why Conlan showed no interest in women.
Despite himself, Killeen leaned in closer to listen.
“I know you keep her safe,” Conlan murmured. “Safe . . . I kill Arthor, end this war. I will find him.”
Listening to Conlan’s sleep-talking only deepened Killeen’s respect.
Killeen’s battle dreams were usually a frenzy of blurry, panic-infused images spattered by blood. But even in his sleep, Conlan sounded focused, confident, unerring.
“I’m sorry, Fee.” A note of deep sadness tinged Conlan’s words. “If I could bring you back . . . if I knew where to find you . . . ”
Killeen’s brow furrowed and he edged back again. The bare emotion in his friend’s voice unsettled him. These were private thoughts, words for someone who was not Killeen.
“I remember,” Conlan continued, “I remember my promise. Could I forget?”
Conlan’s lips twisted strangely and Killeen lifted his head a little. Anguish coiled around Conlan’s mouth. Killeen have never seen his friend make such a face. And then Conlan’s voice changed and didn’t quite sound like his voice at all.
“You left,” he said, “I looked and looked. You knew, you always knew . . . don’t understand . . . if I knew how to break it, I would . . .”
Before Killeen could get a grasp on what made this voice so strange, Conlan’s usual voice returned.
“I’m part of her, always. Without me, without her, no one. I die . . . I die. I don’t want to die.”
A dull weight dropped into Killen’s stomach and he rolled over quickly. The movement seemed to interrupt Conlan’s dream. He groaned and ceased speaking.
Killeen stared at the icy drops of moisture beading on the inside of the tent wall, clutching his blanket to his chest. He didn’t like to hear Conlan refer to his own death. Everyone thought about it, how could they not? But Conlan was different. Conlan never joked about it like Lasair and Cuana. Conlan never reminded them of the possibility of it before a battle. Conlan only ever spoke about how to be stronger, smarter, better.
His throat grew tight.
Conlan could not die. Killeen resolved then that it would never happen. Not so long as he was there to stop it.