“What do you make of it Fee?” Ruairi asked over his uneaten midday meal.
Fee was half-submerged in a cool bowl of water, but his brooding sapped any refreshment he might have gained from the bath.
“I do not know what to make of it,” Fee answered, though this was not entirely true. He’d been thinking all morning about nothing else, pouring over Killeen’s words, his expressions. Fee climbed the gentle slope of the bowl and rested his front legs on the gold-trimmed rim. “What do you know about the Mhasc Caoin, sir? I do not mean of his renown, but of the man himself.”
“From what I hear,”—Ruairi stroked his white beard, his troubled gaze turned toward the window—“there is little to know. A verified mystery, he is.”
“Is there someone who might know?”
Ruairi shrugged and gulped his fourth cup of wine. “You might try some of the servants, they trade in such blather. Though much of it is more fairy than true tale. Isn’t that true, Tadhag?”
The young man, as shallow-faced and puckered as he was as a child, looked absolutely thrilled to be addressed directly by the king. He hurried away from the wall, behind the King, where he’d been waiting to remove the king’s plate.
“Your Highness,” he said, with an excessive bow.
“Have you heard tale of this Mhasc Caoin?” Ruairi asked, his words jumbled and weary.
“Indeed, I have, sire,” Tadhag replied readily.
“Well, let us hear it,” Ruairi said, though he was sinking deeper into his chair with his eyes half-closed.
“What would you like to hear?” Tadhag asked.
Fee sank as well. He knew Tadhag was only going to repeat the grandiose stories Fee had already dismissed as more fiction than fact. Nevertheless, the look in Killeen’s eyes needled Fee. The man had been unsettled. Surely, the knight knew his commander better than most, better than any perhaps. So what had happened that had brought the knight such unease? Fee had run the meeting over and over in his mind and could not crack the mystery of it.
“Where is he from?” Fee asked.
“Oh, no one knows that,” Tadhag answered quickly. “His name is not even Conlan, they say. The Mhasc Caoin, it means Masked Wolf, in the northern languages. Because you see,” Tadhag’s plump hands became animated as he spoke, “he wears a mask always. He never takes it off. They say he even sleeps in it.”
Fee floated in his water, letting the water bubble over his lips. “Why would he do that?” Fee murmured, but not because he was truly asking, but merely thinking aloud.
“Scars,” Tadhag said definitely. “Horrible scars, over the whole of his body. It is said that his family was burned out of their home by the marauder king, which is why he was so set upon killing him. They say that Conlan escaped, but was disfigured so that no one could bear to look upon him. Thus he donned his mask and set out to seek his revenge.”
“His family was burned from their home?” Fee queried, playing along merely as an exercise to keep his mind working. “Meaning he is of common blood?”
“Oh no, he’s a knight,” Tadhag answered assuredly.
“Begley is a knight,” Fee pointed out.
Tadhag scowled, his tone turning tart. “Begley is an exception.”
“Indeed,” Fee agreed. “But the Ulic are not likely to burn a castle.”
“But they have the ability to burn stone,” Tadhag contradicted with utter confidence.
Fee restrained a laugh and refocused. The King’s chest was moving slow and rhythmically, his cheek piled against his hand. “Then you claim Conlan is a nobleman?”
“Oh, yes,” Tadhag said.
“And how long as he served Blackstone?”
“Oh, well, he killed Arthor, that was four years ago.” Tadhag’s small eyes rolled up to the gilded ceiling, as if calculating the years of the stories he heard. “And he destroyed the Ulic boats, I think it was years before then, but he was not yet serving the king when he did that.”
“Destroyed the boats?”
“Yes, that is an excellent story,” Tadhag said brightly. “He destroyed a dozen Ulic boats in the middle of winter, with nothing but an axe. That was even before he killed the witch and her Ulic lover.”
Fee wanted to roll his eyes, but the effect would’ve been lost. He wasn’t going to explain to Tadhag that the Ulic did not attack in winter, nor was any woman likely to take one as lover, witch or not. And while it might have been possible to disable an Ulic longboat with an axe, doing so to a dozen was as likely as Tadhag taking up a sword and defeating the Mhasc Caoin himself.
“Why was he fighting the Ulic before he served the king?” Fee asked.
“He met them on his way, to pledge his fealty,” Tadhag said.
“So he was not from one of the five kingdoms controlled by Tireachan at the time?”
“Oh no,” Tadhag said.
“But you said that no one knows where he’s from,” Fee said.
“Yes, but he’s not a northerner.” Tadhag leaned toward Fee in a confidential manner. Behind him, the older footmen looked as bored with Tadhag’s telling as Fee felt. Tadhag’s voice lowered, “Some say that he’s from as far south as Whiteplain.”
“Why would they say that?” Fee asked, making no effort to lower his own voice.
“Because of his accent,” Tadhag replied. “And when he came to Tireachan, he wore his hair long, like our warriors. Braided for the men he’d killed. It’s said his complexion is like that of our people, olive-colored.”
“How could anyone tell what his complexion looked like if his skin was scarred from burns? And how would it be that his home was burned by Ulic if he was from Whiteplain. They have never been attacked by Ulic.”
Tadhag straightened up to ponder these questions.
“Did the wolf not meet Whiteplain in battle?” Fee asked.
“Of course,” Tadhag said, indignant that he was asked such an obvious question.
“And was it not the Mhasc Caoin himself, who slew King Aodhan’s sons? Altan and—”
“Of course it was,” Tadhag cut in. “Brogan’s head was taken clean off by the Mhasc Caoin. Everyone knows that. ”
Fee slid down deeper into the water, mind working furiously.
Brogan. Fee had not thought about the boy once betrothed to Caoinlin since his death. And before that, not since Ruairi was forced to pay half of his treasury and place his men under Aodhan’s command in recompense for Caoinlin’s disappearance and their broken martial contract.
“If the Mhasc Caoin was from Whiteplain, why would he kill his king’s sons?” Fee thought out-loud. “He wouldn’t,” Fee said, before Tadhag could answer. “He wouldn’t want to engage in battle at all with his own countrymen if he is as honorable as they say.”
“Oh, he is,” Tadhag said. “He is as honorable as he is terrifying. Let me tell you about how he defeated Arthor. There was a fierce battle—”
But Fee had ceased listening.
He sank to the deepest middle of the bowl, plucking out the details, twisting them together like thin threads, attempting to somehow make the impossible, possible.
A man who wears a mask, always.
A man from the south.
A man who viciously parted Brogan’s head from his body.
A man who made an inexplicable, illogical. . . perhaps sentimental offer of single combat to the king of Redthorn.
But it couldn’t be, it just . . . couldn’t—