Their counsel was interrupted.
Sweat wetting his broad face, the guard bowed hastily to the king.
Outside, the sun barely peeked over the trees. Though the mid-summer days had proven particularly hot and humid, the breeze that skittered through the open doors, ruffling the King’s papers, was chilly.
The guard’s face was blanched, his voice strained and peaked, eyes darted anxiously. “They approach, Your Highness.”
The king nodded and slumped in his gilt chair. He had not slept that night. In truth, he had slept a night through in over seven years. In that same time, his wardrobe had been replaced three times. These sweeping replacements were due not to a love of fashion, but to his gut, which had trebled in size. Now, he rested his hand on his protruding stomach, straining even this newest red silk shirt. It was as though all the stress and grief had formed a massive stone that was slowly crushing him from within.
“Sire?” the guard squeaked, hopping a little from one foot to the other.
The king did not look at the guard. “They will be received.”
“Oh, yes,” the guard said as though he’d known this. “The court is already convened. They await you in the Throne Room.”
The King continued to stare at his desk, an all-too familiar murk distorting the sharpness of his once piercing gaze. Spread across the desk before him, a bevy of messages of warning, some pleading, each leading up to this moment.
They had known this would happen. For three years, they’d been waiting.
All the while the prospect, the king’s ruddy complexion darkening in hues of gray and lines scouring his face, deeper and deeper until he was aged beyond his years. His once black hair was now an unkempt silver tangle grown long over his heavy shoulders. The King had been ceding his kingdom long before Tireachan’s army had begun its conquest.
Fee hopped onto small wooden box on the corner of the desk (within which was a small golden orb).
“Return to your post!” he barked as strongly as a frog’s throat allowed him.
Not at all disturbed by receiving his orders from a frog, or at least this particular frog, the guard jumped and rushed away, closing the door behind him.
Fee watched the king for a time, hoping that he would not have to prod, but was disappointed, as usual.
“Your Highness,” he said gently. “You must take your place.”
King Ruairi glanced up abruptly as if woken from a dream. For a moment, it did not seem that he saw Fee, though they’d been up the entire evening together, outlining the terms of surrender.
“What would she say Fee, were she here?”
Fee sunk a little, a familiar sensation, cold and brittle, seizing him.
Always this question, always resurrecting this pain.
The King refused to let the dead rest.
Fee knew this was part of the reason he was in his current position, though he’d done his best to advise the King toward Redthorn’s advantage and prosperity. So much so that, for all practicalities, Fee had been ruling the kingdom for several years.
But the real reason he was the King’s closest confidant was because of Caoinlin.
Ruairi clung to Fee as though, somewhere hidden in his cloistered amphibian shell there was a piece of her still living, despite the fact that Fee and the rest of the kingdom had years ago erected a monument for the lost princess.
Fee had held on to hope for years and year. But eventually, when no word came, when there was no sign or breath or whisper, he knew that he’d either have to bury himself and die with her, or let her go.
He’d invested himself wholly in her, and it had pained him every day since, but he was no fool. Unless she’d come by some vicious sorcerer and suffered the same fate Fee had suffered, he struggle to imagine how she would have survived.
And once he’d heard the astounding news three years before that Arthor was finally dead and that Ulic were fleeing for their distant homeland, leaving this country once and for all, Fee knew that if Caoinlin were alive, she would’ve returned. His joy for the end of the Ulic threat was quelled by dejection that he was not in Teamair to share in the triumph and the resolution within himself that Caoinlin was truly gone.
In the four years since the Ulic’s deaft, Gaibrial had begun commissioning the wayward mercenaries drifting south, their battles with the Ulic over. At last, King Gaibrial had been given the opportunity to invade and had launched a full-scale war against Whiteplain and thus, Redthorn.
The battles that ensued tested Ruairi’s men in ways that they’d never anticipated. Most of them had never met the type of warrior that had fought year after year against the Ulic and lived. Even Gus was wounded so badly that he was unable to return to the fight. For a short time, young Callan became Ruairi’s champion, but soon after took a blow to head. He lived for little more than a week and was given a hero’s tribute as his pyre burned. After that, to just about everyone’s astonishment, Begley was made the King’s champion. Everyone, that is, but Fee and perhaps Gus, and the King.
They’d watched Begley over the years grow into an efficient and skilled swordsman. But after Caoinlin’s departure, something changed in the boy. He ceased to be a boy altogether. Still, it was hard to say that he’d become a man, either. He was, for certain, something of a terror, to friend and foe. Given to dark moods and violent outbursts, Begley was admired and feared. Though Begley’s ferocious temperament made him fearless in battle and, perhaps, helped him win over Gaibrial’s champion, thus bringing an end to the war, Fee knew all too well that little by little, this darkness was carving a hollow into Begley that could never be wholly filled.
A year after Arthor’s death, while war raged all around them, word came from the north that Tireachan’s army had moved against his western neighbors, Redsun and Birchwater.
At the same time, those kingdoms that had previously ceded to Blackstone under the Ulic threat were solidified under Tireachan’s rule.
By the time Gaibrial was defeated and Whiteplain had secured its lands, Tireachan’s army was marching south, beyond the Blackstone mountains, towards them.
One after another, either by force or surrender, kingdoms were swallowed up by Tireachan’s champion, the other-worldly specter known as the Mhasc Caoin. A man shrouded by such myth and mystery that Fee remained staunchly skeptical of every story he heard.
Though there was no doubt that Blackstone, in the years since Arthor’s defeat, had stretched its power from shore to shore. Or nearly. Redthorn was the last autonomous kingdom in the land. They had not been engaged by Tireachan’s army, though they’d received word over the last month that it was on its way.
Fee didn’t know how to feel about this. He had trouble accepting that Arthor was truly dead and that Ulic were forever gone. A part of him wanted to be proud of what his father had accomplished. Uniting the whole of the island under one banner was a dream of many kings of old and now his father was poised to do just that. Blackstone, by right Fee’s kingdom, his pennant, would be that banner.
On the other hand, he’d pledged his loyalty to Ruairi, who had granted him safety and esteem, even while Fee was trapped in his disgraceful guise.
And there was Caoinlin. Fee could not help but wonder what Caoinlin would have done. He sure she would not have surrendered lest forced to do so. But no matter how conflicted Fee felt, the facts were plain and unavoidable. Redthorn’s army was no match for Blackstone’s. To attempt to fight them off would have been devastating, for Redthorn’s army, its people, and its land.
Fee had a duty to protect them. It gave him no joy to say to the king,
“Your daughter would say that you are required in the Hall.”
Ruairi exhaled heavily and then, after a long moment, he stood.
With some effort, he fastened his dark brown doublet, though the loops were stretched to their tautest around the gold buttons, which looked more likely to give up their securing threads than remain so wrenched upon. He draped his red and gold cloak over his shoulders. The embroidered hem brushed the floor limply. Finally he retrieved his crown, an intricate woven gold band dotted by rubies and opals like the first spring blossoms on a vine, and placed it onto his head, where it rested just above his brow.
Giving his doublet a sharp, and possibly button-loosening tug, he composed his face into something of what it once had been—strong, fair, kingly.
“Fee,” he said, the resignation in his voice dispelling any hint of authority he’d managed to fix upon his features. Ruairi held his hand out and Fee hopped up, crawled along the King’s arm to perch upon his shoulder.
Without haste, they left the King’s study and made the long journey to the Throne Hall. Ministers waited outside the King’s doors, their aged and paunchy faces lowered and grave. No one met the King’s gaze, but the King was not looking for them to. He walked as he had for the last seven years, like the living dead. The footmen opened the doors and the Hall fell instantly silent.
Every lord, lady, duke and dutchess, every noble person and wealthy merchant, even the guards with their straight backs and stiff lips, dropped their tearful eyes as the King climbed the dais to his throne. Begley stood by, to the left of the King’s throne. He joined the court in a bow, but unlike the rest of them, there was no grief in his eyes. The simmering rage that did reside in his gaze seemed to Fee more empty and useless than ever.
Ruairi ease into his chair and the court straightened.
Fee remained where he was, fastened to the king’s shoulder like some absurd stuffed accoutrement. But the court was accustomed to Fee’s presence and not a single one blinked for the oddity of him. Not that at this profound, lamentable moment, they would be concerned with a frog. Next to the loss of a kingdom and the reordering of their world, Fee was as insignificant as any other frog.
The light was not bright yet, and all the doors to the courtyard were propped open. The same breeze that cooled the King’s study wafted over the heads of the court and swirled the hems of the ladies’ dresses like a shy child pattering about them. The strongest of the sun’s rays caught in the crystals of the chandeliers and speckled those below in dancing white light. The scene was so beautiful, so serene, that Fee was mired in disgust and contempt for it. Nature seemed to mock their tears, prying at the somber mood with teasing fingers.
Though they were anticipating it, the entrance of the chamberlain made the entire court flinch in unison. All except Fee, who hardened though his heart fluttered. The King seemed to deflate and Begley, whose anger rose to a boil that made the scar running from high on his right cheek all the way down his neck and below his collar, turn a stark white while the rest of his skin golden darken from simmering oil to hot metal.
Everyone’s gaze swiveled to the tightly knotted face of the Chamberlain at the grand entrance doors.
“Emissary from Blackstone, of King Tireachan,” the chamberlain’s voice struggled to remain robust, though by the time it reached Fee’s ears at the other end of the hall sounded like little more than a whimper, “Sir Killeen and his guard.”
Fee grew even colder.
He knew Killeen, or knew of him. He certainly had known his father and their lands.
And when the darkly clad envoy of soldiers strode into the airy light of the hall, Sir Killeen at the head of the small retinue of half a dozen men, Fee felt so ill he thought his heart might simply stop.
Killeen was a shorter, harder version of his father.
All the faces that had blurred and lost potency over time, emerged like blood from a freshly cut wound in Fee’s.
At the sight of them, Fee ached for home like he’d never done, and at the same time, hated it for what it had done to these men, to his father, to him; for the intractable remoteness etched into their faces. He hated it for the deadly edge of their gaits, honed by a lifetime spent in close quarters with pain and loss and death. Killeen’s short black hair and faceted blue eyes were shared by half the men that followed behind him. The others were the pale sort found in Leafwhite and Graycliff, hair so blond that it was white. They were like the black phantoms of death in the warm, rosy space of the hall. Their black uniforms removed them even further from the golden aura of Redthorn Palace and its similarly hued inhabitants, who recoiled as the emissary passed, unhurried, by them.
The people of Redthorn were right to be afraid. Fee had no doubt that this handful of men could dispatch every person, three hundred, in the hall, even if each was given a weapon and knew how to properly wield it. Which they did not.
Killeen halted at the foot of the dais. Had he lived in a peaceful time, he might’ve been husky, overweight, but instead the cut of his muscular body was evident even covered by the stiff felted doublet. He wore no armor, though carried a curved sword that made Fee’s mind seize up. Killeen’s broad face was colored like milky blue marble and as emotive as if it were stone. He bowed, stiffly, and the men, in two straight lines behind him, followed suit.
“Sir Killeen,” Ruairi acknowledged, his voice distant as Killeen’s eyes.
“Your Highness.” Killeen’s voice was husky, wind-shorn. The sound of it might’ve brought Fee to tears, were he capable. He had not heard the melodic accent of Gaidtach Tuath in fifteen years, even his own seemed to have faded and been lost.
Killeen raised his head and his gaze caught on Fee, but did not linger, though the corner of his mouth twitched in suppressed amusement. Fee was riled, if only he were himself, Killeen would bow, truly bow, and Fee could send them back to Tireachan, could lead them back and leave Redthorn in peace. But he was no longer a Prince of Blackstone, he was not even human, he was simply, only, no-more-than a frog.
“You are the commander of the force that idles within my borders?” Ruairi inquired, straddling indifference.
“No, I am not,” Killeen said, assuming a clipped but not curt tone.
“Then you bring a message?” Ruairi asked, sighing impatiently.
“Indeed,” Killeen replied. “Surrender or die.”
Ruairi ran his hand over his belly, Fee cringed inwardly. The court remained silent and attentive.
“Is this extent of your message?” the king asked finally.
Killeen’s square jaw worked slightly. “Not entirely.”
“Well?” Ruairi said, regaining some of the boom of his old voice.
“And who is your commander?” Ruairi erupted in a surprising display of emotion and kingly force.
Killeen glowered. “I would not think Your Highness eager either to know of or to meet him.”
“What you think is of no concern to me,” Ruairi blustered, causing a few of his guard to smile.
Killeen was not shaken. “Our army is commanded by our king’s own champion, you may know him as the Mhasc Caoin.”
A single fearful gasp echoed through the hall, followed by nervous murmuring. Ruairi waited it out. Fee swelled, prouder of Ruairi at this moment than he had in years.
“I am not one,” Ruairi replied in a disdainful tone, “for childish epithets. Tell me the man’s name.”
“Conlan, Your Majesty,” Killeen said, almost smiling as he spoke.
When Killen spoke the wolf’s name, Fee glimpsed a genuine feeling from the black knight, one of the deepest respect and devotion. Suggesting that his commander, Conlan, was no brute to his men, at least not to Killeen. The mystique of the Mhasc Caoin abated a little in Fee’s critical mind. The man had a name and he had a relationship, a good one, with this man, Killeen.
“And what does this Conlan wish to relay to me?” Ruairi asked.
Killeen’s eyes flicked to Begley, who’d managed to maintain a staunch, if not jeering, demeanor throughout. Fee apprehended what was behind Killeen’s quick assessment of Begley, but couldn’t understand it and didn’t quite believe it until Killeen spoke.
“Should you choose to forgo surrender,” Killeen said as if this was the stupidest possible decision Ruairi could make. “My commander,” he chewed on the words, perhaps they made as little sense to him as they would to everyone else, “offers your champion the opportunity to meet him in single combat.”
This broke the spell of the emissary’s presence. The court erupted in surprise and stammering chatter. Much of which consisted of, “Did I hear that right?” and “What does it mean?”
Even Killeen’s guard shifted uncomfortably. Killeen’s gaze turned fully to Begley with open contempt.
Begley, for his part, looked just as stunned.
Ruairi raised a hand and the court instantly silent.
“Fee,” Ruairi said.
Killeen’s gaze faltered then, shooting from Begley to Ruairi. A strange expression on his face that Fee couldn’t quite identify, confusion surely, but something else, something searching.
“Yes, sire?” Fee said as quietly as he could, but his words caught Killeen’s attention.
The knight boggled at him, as though willing him to speak again. The court was mute again and there was no sound but the King’s voice.
“What do you make of this offer?” Ruairi asked.
He did not turn his head but spoke toward the emissary as if he were asking them. The guard behind Killeen, those who had not heard Fee speak and were not gawping at the frog, smirked at the King who appeared to be speaking to no one. Fee could feel Begley’s demanding stare, but Fee kept his eyes locked on Killeen.
Fee cleared his throat, which always came out a like a croak, and a few of the Blackstone guards snickered.
As loud and forcefully as he was able so that the whole hall could hear and so that the remaining Blackstone guards were rendered dumb, Fee spoke his mind, “Why should a commander of such fearsome renown, the mighty foe of Arthor himself, now at the head of an army fifty times that of our own, that has conquered the whole of this land, never once in single combat, make such an offer now, at the end of his campaign?”
“Trickery perhaps?” Ruairi suggested. They spoke as if they were alone, but both were well aware that the whole of the hall leaned towards them in anticipation.
“Maybe he is looking for a fight,” Begley growled under his breath.
“Perhaps,” Ruairi acknowledge.
“Unlikely,” Fee retorted. He didn’t believe it. Not if the wolf were even a fraction as fearsome as his legend would have him be. There was something he was missing. Something they were all missing. Even the wolf’s own men did not seem to comprehend why their commander would make such an offer—risking a loss of the last kingdom in the country, when that kingdom was wholly prepared to surrender.
Killeen did not move his gaze from Fee. “Excuse my ignorance, Your Highness, but what is it you called that creature upon your shoulder?”
“There is no need to excuse your ignorance,” Ruairi said dismissively. “Why should you be aware of the affairs of the House of Redthorn? This creature, as you call him, we call Fee. A more intelligent, steadfast, or honorable being you’ve never met.”
An odd condensation occurred in Killeen’s eyes, which tracked from Fee to Ruairi and proceeded to stare hard into the king’s tired, gray eyes.
Fee was sure that Killeen had come to some conclusion, some realization, due to his face going slack, his bewilderment vanishing. And then in the next second, his features hardened and he withdrew all his emotion from view.
“I think,” Fee said, “that Sir Killeen might be able to illuminate the matter if he so chose.”
“Is that true?” Ruairi asked, though it was unclear if he was asking Killeen or Fee. “Would the truth be shared with us?”
Fee scrutinized the knight closely. “Tell us, Sir Killeen, is this proposal an honorable one?”
Killeen straightened. “Not to disagree with, Your Highness, but there is no one, man or beast, who is more intelligent, steadfast, and honorable than Tireachan’s champion and general, Conlan. His word, once given, is never broken.”
Fee mulled over this statement, attempting to discern what it was that Killeen was hiding. But the knight had retreated his inner self fully and was utterly inscrutable. Fee shifted from foot to foot in frustration.
“So then,” Ruairi said, leaning forward himself now, forcing Fee to grip more tightly to the man’s shoulder, “should my champion meet your commander in single combat and defeat him, Tireachan’s armies would leave my lands and not return, so long as we both still live?”
“Those are the terms of single combat,” Killen acknowledged stiffly. “My king, Tireachan, would be bound to them, regardless of the outcome. But might I suggest to Your Highness, that he need not sacrifice even a single life, should he surrender now.”
Begley stepped boldly forward. “What makes you so sure that your commander will win?”
Killeen looked up at Begley with calm seriousness. “The wolf always wins.”
“Then he is overdue to lose,” Begley snarled.
Strangely, Killeen did not take the bait. Which was perhaps more unnerving than if he had taken the chance to boast about Conlan’s aptitude. He merely returned his attention to the King and for a moment, a glimmer of his bewilderment reemerged.
“You can see,” Ruairi said, “how the chance of losing one life might be balanced by the chance of losing a whole kingdom?”
Killeen inclined his head slightly.
“And I dare say,” Ruairi continued, “that my champion would be much aggrieved if I did not at least allow him the opportunity.”
“Too true, my liege,” Begley said, sparking for all his desire to face death yet again.
“Tell your commander that his offer has been accepted,” Ruairi said, sit up straight and proud. “Does he need time to prepare?”
The faintest crease in his brow was the only hint that something nettled the knight. “No, Your Highness.”
The king turned toward his champion. “Begley? Do you require—”
Begley, forgetting himself, interrupted. “I am ready.”
The king forgave Begley’s impatience, as he always did, by ignoring it.
“Then it shall be tomorrow at dawn?” the king said, no small amount of incredulity tinging his question. “On the plain below the hill where your forward army is camped?”
Killeen bowed in acceptance.
He signaled and his guard on their heels as one.
Killeen lingered a second longer, to look from Ruairi to Fee and back again before he pivoted and followed his men out of the king’s hall.