Once upon a time, Paul, brother of King Samuel and chancellor, sat on the throne, listening to the complaints and petitions of the people. He listened with care, asked questions to show his investment in the pain and passion of his people. Paul and Sam viewed nobility as a privilege, not a right.
In his youth, Paul had led the charge for his brother with the zeal of a born warrior. A wildness of spirit had burned within him until a battle on the Eastern Shore sent an arrow smeared with shit into his right thigh. The infection robbed him of substance, but not character. He had not healed but his mind and senses had gained a terrible acuity as his heart gained a newfound empathy for the people.
There was more white than black in his beard but Paul woke each day feeling reborn. The faith of his senses had saved him, and he put it to his brother’s use.
She walked forward, coarse brown hair hung in her face as she gave an awkward curtsey. Paul waved her off and invited her to speak.
‘My Lucas is missing in the woods, my lord.’ she said.
A pang of horror jolted him upright. There had been hunters lost in the woods. Paul had taken an interest in the incidents.
He let her speak her pain and her fear. He reassured her. He instructed a scribe write a script for three sovereigns to see her through the next few months. She flushed and curtseyed again before she left.
Paul turned to Arthur, his steward and told him to send for his man.
Ernest. The hunter who walked the kingdom at Paul’s behest, and not all his prey was animal. Before noon, he was out with Gunther, his mastiff, studying the map Paul had worked on and a note in his small, neat handwriting.
Such an area without a sighting bodes a look. Bring back something interesting.
Gunther went ahead, muzzle low to the earth as he snuffled and padded ahead. Ernest caught it a moment later.
The moisture hung in the air. A body of water unmarked on the map. He strode forwards, heard a yelp just ahead and the splash of water. Ernest moved through the trees.
He watched the surface of the pond ripple then grow still.
‘Well, this must be the place.’ he said.
Ernest could not swim and he bolted from the forest until he found men in the fields. He came back with four men and five buckets, told them to empty the pond.
They stared at one another, faces shining and red from the heat of the day. A stout man with a neat line of beard and a soft belly which fell to his sides like sackcloth pointed his finger at the water.
‘Are you mad?’ he said
Ernest knelt before the pond and pushed his bucket into the water. He looked up and scowled.
‘My dog’s down there.’ he said.
One man joined him. The stout man held onto his bucket, shifted with unease.
‘He’s drowned. Dogs can’t breathe underwater.’ he said.
Ernest huffed, shook his head and tossed the water over his shoulder.
‘He’s a smart dog.’ he said.
Bucketing was hard work. Their leaden limbs and aching backs cried for release but as a shape became visible, they worked harder, motivated by a curiosity Paul would have encouraged.
A giant laid in the mud, thick muscles slathered with mud. Gunther got up and panted, shook his head and sprayed the gathered men with mud. Ernest laughed and told the men to get him rope.
‘How much?’ a man said.
Ernest ruffled Gunther behind the ears.
‘All of it.’ he said.
The giant slept. As they dragged him back to the castle, the mud came off him in thick wet scabs revealing hair the colour of dark copper which covered him from head to toe. Nothing roused him from sleep even as they heaved him into the iron cage set in the courtyard.
His eyes opened when the key turned in the lock.
Paul handed the key to Samuel who turned it over in his hands.
‘It is my queen’s birthday. I think I shall give her this as a birthday present.’ he said.
Paul sighed and gestured towards the giant in the cage.
‘We found this somewhere low and dark, it should be inside.’ he said.
Samuel shook his head and slipped the key into his pocket.
The giant sat up on his haunches and the gathered onlookers held their breath.
‘There is nourishment in the low and dark places.’ the giant said.
His voice resonated. Women felt it in their bellies. Men felt it in their hearts and loins.
Paul grinned and leaned forward.
‘What are you?’ he said.
The giant smiled with his big white teeth, looked over them with his deep, brown eyes and curled his fingers through the bars of his cage.
‘I am the wild man.’ he said.
He sat back on his haunches and scratched his chest.
‘He did not speak again. Paul watched him until Arthur came and told him supper was ready. The wild man watched him leave. The wild man closed his eyes.