Eilhu bore the weight of his armour with each step. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, the wound in his side tugging at him. He swallowed, tasting grit and the fading copper of adrenaline. It hurt to breathe, but it was a sweet pain.
He sat down, looking up at the clear blue sky, the clouds rolled in ponderous trails. It was the cleanest thing he had seen in hours and it made him smile with wonder. He loosened his sword belt with shaking fingers and put his fingers to his lips. He shut his eyes and thought of her.
Thousands dead and he had come away with a split lip, all his teeth and a small cut against his right side, where a spear head grazed against him.
Peregrin stood there, hands by his sides, his bow slung over his right shoulder.
‘Care to join me, captain?’ Eilhu said.
Peregrin smiled and shook his head.
‘Not sure I would get up again, your highness.’
Eilhu chuckled and shook his head.
‘We’ve shed blood together, you can use my name. What do you want?’
Peregrin coughed before he spoke.
‘We found him.’
Roderick had tried to escape but Peregrin’s men had cornered him at Elder’s Pass. Eilhu extended a hand and Peregrin helped him to his feet.
‘I was thinking we should plant wheat here. I want to expand our farming.’
Peregrin nodded as Eilhu tied his sword belt and rolled his shoulders.
‘An excellent idea. It’s good earth.’
Eilhu ran his tongue over his lips, tested the cut with his tongue and looked down the hill.
‘It is. Now, let’s go discuss the terms of Young King Roderick’s surrender, shall we?’
Two soldiers held him upright. Rivulets of blood had dried on his upper lip. He showed his uneven, irregular peg teeth and the inflamed gums. His hair hung in rats tails around his face, clotted with dirt and blood. He swallowed and chuckled as Eilhu approached.
‘I can’t say I enjoyed the treatment I’ve received, Eilhu.’
Eilhu tilted his head and gazed at him.
‘It shouldn’t have ended like this, Roderick.’
Roderick grinned with a bravado which bordered on mania. He struggled against the soldiers but they held him with ease.
‘It hasn’t. One of us is still alive.’ he said.
Eilhu asked his men to release Roderick. He rubbed his arms and stretched, staring into Eilhu’s eyes with a hate past reason.
‘Stop the theatre, Roderick. It’s over.’
Roderick clenched his fists and sneered.
‘Never.’ he said.
Eilhu sighed and shook his head.
‘You’re coming back in chains to face trial. I’ve had my fill of killing today.’ he said.
Roderick hissed and spat on the ground.
‘Fuck you commoner scum and fuck your cunt queen. These lands are mine by right.’ he said.
‘I demand trial by single combat. Here. Now.’
The speed with which Eilhu made the very final decision surprised him. He unsheathed his sword and stuck it into the ground between them.
‘If you insist, you sad little boy, go right ahead.’
Eilhu picked up a shield and strapped it onto his right arm. Peregrin frowned and his hand went to the hilt of his sword but Eilhu shook his head.
‘I’m going to enjoy this.’ Roderick said.
Eilhu lowered the shield and stared into Roderick’s eyes without fear or anger.
‘Remember, you chose this.’ he said.
Roderick drew the sword from the earth, turned it in his hand.
‘I’ve never killed a man with his own blade before.’ he said.
Eilhu gave a quiet, indulgent smile.
‘I doubt it.’ he said.
Roderick snarled and lunged forwards. Eilhu stepped backwards, avoiding the arc of the blade and raised his shield.
Roderick followed him, bringing the sword over his head as he screamed with fury.
Eilhu lowered his centre of gravity and slammed the shield forward into Roderick’s chest. The impact travelled through his forearms as Roderick gave a choked cry, wheezing as he fell backwards. Eilhu brought the lip of the shield upwards, catching Roderick underneath his chin and snapping his head backwards.
He fell, the sword clattering to the ground from his fingers, clutching his throat as his heels beat a tattoo against the ground. Eilhu followed him down, slipping his forearm free of the shield and putting his boots against it. He squatted and grabbed a handful of Roderick’s hair.
‘I am proud of everything I’ve done, Roderick. Except this.’ he said.
‘I pronounce you guilty.’
He took Roderick’s head between his hands and gave it a sharp, final twist.
Eilhu got to his feet. He picked up his sword, nodded to each of the soldiers and Peregrin, then returned to his spot on the hill.
The clouds, white and pure, driven by a breeze which caressed his skin. He recalled her lips against his cheek, how she would graze his chest hair with her fingers to help her sleep and the gentle rhythm of her breath.
He sent part of his soul home to her. His body would soon follow.