The woods were safe again. Samuel celebrated by staging a three-day hunt with Paul in attendance. Angela, his queen entertained noblemen from the Caliphate.
Their son, Eilhu, played alone.
He chased his golden ball through the castle. It had been a gift from his uncle Paul, based on the machines of the dwarves when they still traded with the surface.
It moved in loops and hops, a sinuous beguiling lilt which kept Eilhu entertained for hours.
He followed it into the courtyard. It rolled towards the cage and Eilhu shuddered, frozen with shock as he wished for the ball to stop.
The ball leapt between the bars, with a small hiss. He ran to the cage, fighting back tears.
‘Give me my ball.’ he said.
His voice was a squeak meant to be a roar.
The Wild Man shook his head and gave a chuckle which came from his belly, shook the surrounding air. He held the ball between his rough, long fingers. It was a marble in his hands and he rolled it into his palm with a turn of his wrist.
‘Not until you open the cage.’ he said.
Eilhu clenched his fists and pushed his chest out.
‘No, my father has forbidden it.’ he said.
The Wild Man gazed at Eilhu with his gentle brown eyes and smiled at him.
Eilhu’s courage failed him, and he ran away.
He held the secret inside him, it felt like a toad sat in the pit of his stomach. He was silent throughout dinner, afraid his words would come out as croaks. Samuel drank and Angela spoke with the Caliphate nobles, Paul watched Eilhu but thought it a simple case of tiredness..
The toad kept him awake, leaping around in his belly until dawn came and he ran to the cage.
He demanded his ball.
‘Not until you open the cage.’
Eilhu ran, stayed in his room all day, and at dinner, the toad ate everything Eilhu tried to force into his mouth. He did not sleep and on the third day, he went to the cage, pale and exhausted.
‘I can’t let you out. I don’t have the key.’ he said.
The Wild Man pressed against the bars of the cage. He grinned, pleased with the boy’s surrender.
‘It is under your mother’s pillow, Eilhu. Get it. Then you can have your ball back.’ he said.
It was cool beneath her pillow. He took the key in both hands, ran with it back to the courtyard. His grip was so tight it made his bones ache.
The lock resisted. Eilhu had to put his weight behind it, and when it turned, he slipped and caught the tip of his finger. The metal pinched him, sharp and cruel as he fell away, crying out in pain.
He wiped away his tears as the cage door opened. The Wild Man stepped out, tall like a mountain to Eilhu and knelt before the boy, with the ball in the palm of his hand.
‘I gave my word.’ he said.
The Wild Man walked away. Eilhu buzzed with panic at what he had done.
‘Please, don’t go. They will beat me for this.’ he said.
The Wild Man lifted him up and placed him on his shoulders. He walked from the castle and started towards the woods.
Paul found the cage. He sent word to Samuel, but he was arguing with Angela about where Eilhu was.
Ernest and Gunther went out with a host of men but they returned without success.
In private, people said it was a good omen they had returned at all.
Sorrow fell upon the court of King Samuel and Queen Angela. Paul ruled in his brother’s stead and he offered a great reward for the return of Eilhu.
No one claimed it.